There is nothing quite like watching an African serval stalk its prey across the grasslands. The cats are sleek, supple and sexy, and they’re also important hunters of rodents and ground birds in many habitats across sub-Saharan Africa.

But the two serval brothers who arrived at the Free Me Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre late in 2015 were nothing like those impressive predators. Nervous, hissing and barely weighing a kilogram, the small fluffy bundles had been orphaned at just five weeks. The centre's manager, Roz Marais, knew these badass little cats had a long road ahead of them before they could prowl the grasslands.

By the time I travelled to visit the brothers in October, in the small town of Howick in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal, they had grown larger and healthier, and were enjoying a diet of day-old chicks. Fascinated by the story, I knew their journey from rescue to release would make a great documentary pitch. But as a scientist with a background of working with big cats (particularly leopards), I also knew that returning such animals into the wild generally doesn't end well – both for the cats and sometimes for the people living nearby.

Releases often fail because the rescued cats have been hand-reared, and have imprinted on people. Once reintroduced into the wild, the animals go on to attack livestock, and are also frequently killed by other big cats living in the area. But there are exceptions to these scenarios, and something told me Free Me's servals might be among them.

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Dr Tharmalingam Ramesh, one of the world's leading serval experts, has collared and released a number of these cats in the past. Image: Esmaella R. Bourret 

I drew some of my optimism from a local research and collaring project spearheaded by Dr Tharmalingam Ramesh from the nearby University of KwaZulu-Natal. The study had seen other orphaned servals released into the wild over the previous two years, and Dr Ramesh had obtained three months' of tracking data before the cats dispersed out of range.

His findings showed the servals moved around a lot during their first months of freedom, suggesting they might at least be hunting for themselves – but also pointing to the possibility that other servals in the area were pushing the new arrivals out of their territory. The yardstick for any successful wildlife release is whether the animals find a place to call home, and if they manage to breed – and Dr Ramesh’s data pointed to some uncertainty on both counts.

Scuffles with rivals aside, wild servals face a number of other serious threats, including snaring by poachers for the fur and traditional medicine trades, as well as the risk of collisions with vehicles on the roads. And yet despite all of these hazards, it seemed to me that these young cats deserved a chance at life beyond captivity.

When I filmed the brothers in their enclosure just two weeks before the release, they seemed more than ready to pounce at the challenge. With their incredible physical adaptations, the agile animals look almost like a cross between a cheetah and a giraffe (thanks to those long necks, they’re sometimes called "giraffe cats"!). As the brothers played, we also got to see their vertical jumps in action – not only are they the world's second-fastest cats (topping 45mph!), but servals can also jump about ten feet into the air (which comes in pretty handy when hunting birds like guinea fowl).

Unfortunately, by the morning of the January release, limited funds meant only one tracking collar was available (at US$800 each, they're a pricey purchase), so a decision was made to release just one of the brothers for the time being.

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The serval with his tracking collar fitted. The lightweight device is designed to fall off after about a year. Image: Matt Myhill
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Veterinarian Dr Dave Gibbs administers a tranquilliser antidote as the team prepares to release one of the serval brothers. Image: Matt Myhill

Once immobilised with a tranquiliser dart, the chosen cat was fitted with the lightweight tracking device (which is programmed to drop off at the end of its battery life), and bundled into a carrier for his one-way trip into the wilderness. The week before, Dr Ramesh had been hard at work locating the perfect site for the release, one with plenty of grassland and wetland cover.

Just a short drive later, the crate's doors were opened ... and, at first, the groggy passenger wasn’t too keen on leaving the comfort of his straw-filled shelter. But it took only a bit of coaxing before he bolted out towards the safety of a big acacia bush – so quickly that we could barely capture the moment (even with a high-speed camera)! 

Seeing the serval dart for freedom was incredibly rewarding, and although his journey in the next few weeks will be a tough one – he’ll have to hunt his own food and deal with any rivals in the area – he’ll be monitored closely. The fact that Free Me's other releases survived their first three months in the wild bodes well for this new cat on the block. And whatever happens, this serval's second chance was well deserved.


Top header image: Alex Braczkowski