The Strange Lives of Black Servals

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Servals are wildcats with cheetah-like coats that have black spots, bands, and lines that often live in the grasslands of Africa. Only in East Africa is there a hidden colony of melanistic servals. These cats have dark fur because they have a rare genetic condition called melanism. As they roam the grasslands of East Africa, these shy cats are an interesting and rarely seen sight.

People have seen black servals in Kenya and Tanzania, which is an interesting sign that they live in East Africa. But these cats are very good at hiding, which makes it hard to guess how many there are in the wild. Finding a melanistic serval in its natural habitat is an amazing stroke of luck, even though it’s funny that black cats have long been linked to bad luck and witchcraft.

A beautiful melanistic serval named Manja was found in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, in the middle of the huge Namiri Plains. Manja, the Asilia Africa biologist and guide, should be praised for finding him first. It is even more amazing that Manja was the first person to see a melanistic serval in East Africa. Only four others had seen them before him.

Manja’s choice of place shows how strange it is that he is there. Namiri Plains, which is often called the Serengeti’s big cat refuge, is ruled by lions and cheetahs. Manja, a melanistic serval, needs to be able to stick to her guns and hide herself very well to do well here.

Melanism is a disorder that makes a normal golden-brown-spotted serval coat into a dark shade of black. This is what gives Manja her black coat. Most people with this syndrome live in East African highlands that are more than 2,000 metres above sea level. As per the “thermal melanism hypothesis,” animals that live in colder places at higher elevations are more likely to get melanism. This dark colour helps the plant absorb sun energy better, warm up quickly, and be more active.

It is not true that this is true because Manja lives in the Namiri Plains, which are about 1,000 metres above sea level. Melanistic servals have most recently been seen in lower-lying areas. Because Manja hiked from the nearby Ngorongoro Crater to this area, many things about East Africa’s melanistic servals are still unknown. This makes more questions than it answers.

Some lucky people, like photographer George Benjamin, got to meet Manja in October 2019. Because servals are so secretive, seeing one at all, let alone a melanistic one, is very rare and makes your heart stop. It wasn’t known if Manja would become a melanistic dad until July 2020, when it came out that he had found a partner. Melanistic serval kittens first showed up by the middle of September 2020. This is a very rare event.

The last time these cats were seen, in August 2021, nature photographer Will Burrard-Lucas and his guide Keko found another melanistic serval kitten. This surprising discovery added to Manja’s legacy and made him even more famous as a pioneer in the study of melanistic servals.

People all over the world are interested in Manja’s story, which has gotten him featured in major papers and a lot of attention on social media. People are amazed and curious about him, and he tells them dark tales about the black servants in East Africa.

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