Servals are at home in tall grasslands, and are found in many types of grassy habitat throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Small, isolated populations have also been recorded in parts of northern Africa. Servals are most successful in moist grasslands such as marshes and reed beds, and are very unlikely to be seen in dense forest of any kind. They also are largely absent from the drier parts of the continent, including the Sahara.
Servals are solitary cats that hunt and live alone. If ever they are spotted in a group, it is inevitably a mother with young, not several adults associating together.
Unique and highly successful hunters, servals are most active at night, dawn, and dusk. They prey upon rodents and other small animals that live in the grasses. Those who have seen servals in action describe them as very quick and surprisingly graceful. They are among the best pouncers in the business. They can pounce downward, landing with all fours on a mouse in the grass, or leap upward, grabbing a bird or insect in flight. Servals also have been seen bounding in random arabesques through tall grass, spooking prey into flight and then pouncing.
The serval looks oddly put together, with legs that seem too long for its body, ears that seem too large for its head, and a coat that might have been lifted off a cheetah. Its physical appearance is no accident, though. This cat is well adapted for the life that it lives. Its enormous ears help it to locate prey rustling in the grass. Its long legs allow it to see above the grass line, scan for movement, and pounce when the time is right. Its spots and stripes help to break up its silhouette and camouflage it against a backdrop of grass or woodland cover.
All those who have seen a serval say that it could never be mistaken for any other cat. Its look is utterly unique.
Should a serval cross into the territory of a larger cat or other predator, it could easily become prey itself. However, little is mentioned of its predators in source material, which merely suggests that these cats have not been well studied in the wild.
A female serval in heat attracts male companionship, but the two will come together only briefly before separating again and going about their solitary ways. Females give birth once or twice a year, usually to litters of one to four kittens after a gestation period of just over two months. A mother serval will shelter her vulnerable newborns in a rock den or perhaps in the abandoned burrow of an aardvark or porcupine. Despite the toll that motherhood takes on her – forcing her to hunt more and rest less – she will care for her kittens with great devotion for many months, even continuing to nurse them long after they are able to eat solid food. After about nine months or so, though, she will chase them off, sending the message that it is time to accept independence!
Because of relatively stable populations throughout much of its range, the serval is listed as a species of least concern by the IUCN, the world’s leading conservation organization. This does not mean, however, that servals are unthreatened. They are pressured mainly by the loss and degradation of wetlands, which serve them as important habitat. For similar reasons, they are also threatened by overgrazing and burning of grasslands. And while servals have adapted fairly well to agricultural lands, farmers may shoot and kill them. Servals have rarely been known to attack livestock, but poultry would be hard for them to resist.