Black servals have become something of a holy grail for photographers and naturalists traveling to East Africa where the elusive wild cats are known to roam in higher numbers than elsewhere across the continent. While records of the pitch-black felines are more abundant in this part of the world, catching a glimpse of one is no easy feat. For wildlife photographer Johan van Zyl finding a black serval in the wild had become a "borderline obsession". On a recent foray in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, van Zyl – led by local guide Ken Leyian – was lucky enough to find his sought-after prize and managed to record a few seconds of footage to prove it:

Servals usually have a cheetah-like coat with black spots, bands and stripes, but the dark colouration seen in van Zyl's serval (and other shadowy cats from East Africa) owe their colour to a genetic condition called melanism. In some areas like Tsavo, surveys estimate that at least 46% of the servals are melanistic, but given their secretive nature it is difficult to accurately assess the number of black servals in the wilds of sub-Saharan Africa.

These svelte cats are shy and spend much of their time skulking through tall grass where their patterned coats help them melt into their surroundings. While a dark-coated cat should, theoretically, be easier to spot in the wild than one that blends in, it's likely that there are far fewer melanistic servals than 'regular' cats living in the wild. In fact, there are only four known locations on the east of the continent where you might run into a population of black servals.

In an Instagram post, Van Zyl described the sighting as a "real pinch yourself moment".

For more on these sooty characters, take a look at our "Black Serval 101" article:


Header image: Alan Newman