How to Look at a Serval

© Copyright 2018 Matthew Luna, Ryerson University.

During the 1780s, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon described the serval in his reference work The Natural History of Quadrupeds, Volume 3: “He is extremely fierce, and yet he flies the aspect of man, unless when provoked, and particularly when his dwelling is injured: he then becomes furious, darts upon the offender, and bites and tears nearly in the same manner as the panther.” (97)

A feline found in African savannas and wetlands, the serval is a charming creature that mankind has known for a considerable time. Affiliation between humans and servals date to Ancient Egypt, where people of the time worshipped their felines as gods (Faure and Kitchener 223). Today, domesticated breeds of the serval are kept as pets in households in other countries; while they are not praised like gods, they are treated as both luxury and companion. However, with emphasis on luxury, servals are a prime target for poachers. In place of the cheetah or leopard, which are scarce in population, the pelage of the serval is sold. Considering their empirical value, this was not so different than their depictions in Egyptian art, shown to be gifts or traded objects from Nubia (Engels). This attention is to be expected, as the unique appearance of this cat beckons an affinity, if it is to their benefit or not.

A Wild Serval Appeared by Azhar Khan. Photograph of a wild serval.
A Wild Serval Appeared by Azhar Khan, retrieved from
Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (

The size of a serval is caught between that of a house cat and a larger feline, but this, like their beauty, can be both blessing and curse. The head of a serval is small and delicate, set on an elongated neck, and sports ears that are extreme in size compared to its whole anatomy. The function behind the unusually large ears is to pinpoint the location of its prey, although this causes difficulty on a windy day. Behind the ears are black with distinctive white spots, and further down the servals coat is a color of pale yellow accompanying black markings. These markings are either large spots that usually merge into lengthwise stripes along the neck and back, or of multiple small spots, giving a speckled appearance. At the end of the serval is a tail with black rings and a black tip. Considering the servals small yet agile body, it can climb a tree if needed. A case of this happening would be for rest or to escape from predators. Those that hunt servals are leopards, hyenas, and wild dogs; in general, carnivores that are larger and can catch the serval off-guard will see them as prey. Outside of predators, the serval in its natural habitat is a solitary animal; social interactions between other servals are kept to mating periods.

As mentioned before, human beings have interacted with the serval countless times past, threatening their nature. Due to humans’ tenacity, any chance for the feline to avoid this is null. The delightful appearance of the serval is something to humans that is familiar and exotic, although any fascination should be kept at a distance, lest greed overcomes one’s intent.

Works Cited

Comte de Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc. The Natural History of Quadrupeds, Volume 3. Thomas Nelson and Peter Brown, 1830.

Elkins, James. How to Use Your Eyes. Routledge, 2000.

Engels, Donald W. Classic Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat. Routledge, 2015.

Faure, Eric and Kitchener, Andrew C. “An Archaeological and Historical Review of the Relationships between Felids and People” Anthrozoös: A Multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions of People & Animals. vol. 22, no. 3, 2009, 221–238. doi:10.2752/175303709X457577

Khan, Azhar. A Wild Serval Appeared. 2012. Photograph.

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