A PAIR of shy and famously sharp-eared wild cats – they can even hear their rodent prey burrowing beneath them – have been transferred from the Karoo to Kariega Game Reserve. The two elegant female servals will be joining a pair of males which have already been transferred to the well known Kenton reserve.
The move is part of a project to conserve the species, and all the animals have come from the 13-year-old self-funded Cat Conservation Trust, which is based on a farm near Cradock.
Trust co-founder Marion Holmes explained that the tawny spotted cats (they look a bit like small cheetahs) face various threats – including canned hunting.
"There are now so many places that are hand-raising these cats and charging tourists to feed them and play with them but what people forget is that they grow up and can become four-legged chainsaws as adults.
"These people then sell their adults that they can no longer make money out of, regardless of where they are going. Or they just give them away.”
As dangerous as they can be in an unnatural petting situation, adult servals are dainty compared to the powerful caracal and will not take even small livestock, Kariega manager Jason Loest said.
"But farmers of old lumped them together with the other bigger cats and they were shot out in many places including around here.”
So while the species historically occurred in the Kariega area, the four from Cradock will be the first residents in the reserve. Loest said he and his team were very excited.
"We find that after our tourists have seen the big five, they are keen to see the other smaller or more elusive animals. So the servals will add great tourism value.”
Their arrival also dovetails with the 9000ha reserve’s aim of establishing an intact ecosystem and a predator-prey balance that provides "balance and continuity”, he said.
Holmes confirmed that a central threat to servals is gin traps and poisoned carcasses (the cats do sometimes scavenge) laid by farmers.
"But they pose no threat to farmers. In fact, they can benefit them by keeping down their rodent and gamebird populations that would otherwise decimate their crops. They also deter monkeys.”
At the trust’s breeding centre, to ensure none of the residents (including black-footed, small-spotted and African wild cats) grow unnaturally attached to livestock meat, they are fed only venison and game bird meat and no mutton or beef.
Servals are distributed through south, central and north Africa, usually sticking to areas of long grass and permanent water. They have adapted in drier parts of South Africa by living in cropland with irrigation.
Besides their breeding and release work, the trust hosts school tour groups and undertakes regular visits to schools in the Cradock, Grahamstown and PE precincts. The aim is to teach the pupils about these rare, shy animals – which many of them have never seen – and their valuable natural role.
Holmes said the successful transfer of the four animals to Kariega made her and her team happy.
"It’s a bitter-sweet moment when they have to leave but we try and stay in contact with the reserves to get updates (good or bad) of how the cats are doing. It is always great to know that you have done your part properly.”