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  • Writer's pictureBushwise Student

Elusive species of the Lowveld Part 2: Secretive cats

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

This is the second blog in a series of two about elusive species of the Lowveld (read the first one here). It was written by Bushwise students, Menina Nightingale and Jocene de Kock as part of a special research project during their Professional Field Guide course. All information contained in this blog is from Menina and Jocene’s research.

3 min read

In this blog about elusive species, we look at some of the smaller secretive cats and cat-like creatures that make up a large part of the “Secret 7” – servals, genets and civets. Let’s learn more about these elusive and intriguing species!

Elusive cats

A serval cat by zoonfanatic on Flickr.

When you think of elusive cats (and cat-like mammals) the first that always comes to mind is, of course, a leopard. This big cat is a sighting that many tourists might revisit South Africa just to tick off a sightings list. Forming a big part of the Big 5 – this elusive cat has become an extremely exciting sighting on a game drive. 

But in some of the private reserves, it isn’t necessarily hard to spot one of these majestic animals (with the assistance of a well-knowing field guide!). Despite this, it is always fun, and arguably even more rare to bump into one of the more secretive small cats (and cat-like mammals) that roam the bushveld – civets, genets and servals.


A civet with a wet nose stares towards the camera, as it climbs on a tree in the dark of night. It is illuminated wtih a spotlight.

Civets are relatively common inhabitants of the bushveld. Often you will see their tracks and signs, but less often will you catch a glimpse of one of these sly cats. On a drive, you will likely come across their perfectly round little paw prints crossing the sandy roads and you might even come across one of their ‘civitrys’ – where they will come and defecate regularly to mark their territory.


The main reason they are so hard to see is they are strictly nocturnal. They largely spend their time up in trees resting during the day to keep out of harm’s way. Being relatively small, high in the canopy and very dark in colour a daylight sighting of one of these is nearly impossible. A more likely time to catch a glimpse of one is in the evening as the sun is setting where they will descend from trees and begin the search for food, feeding largely on insects, insect eggs and sometimes even frogs.


An image of a genet from Bernard DUPONT on Flickr.

Although genets very often hang around campsites or lodges, and like most of the other smaller predators, are largely nocturnal, it’s not always easy to find these small spotty animals. These shy little cat-like mammals are very hard to spot particularly during the day. In daylight hours they will spend their time sleeping in aardvark burrows, hollowed out tree stumps or even in rabbit burrows. Similar to a civet they will emerge after dark to hunt using their partially retractable claws to catch rodents, birds, bats, snakes and scorpions! Once out on a hunt, they are more active and the chance of seeing one isn’t impossible on a night drive. 


These cats, whilst nocturnal hunters, can emerge during daylight hours often seen in long grass where they can blend in nicely. They are a beautiful cat to spot with long slender bodies, tall legs and large dome-like ears. Servals can travel up to 60 km in a night and very seldom stay in the same area, so populations at one time in an area are never very concentrated. 

Servals are almost harder to spot than a genet due to the large distances they travel. Unlike genets, servals  don’t scavenge near lodges or camps; they are much more secretive even at night when hunting. They are stealthy hunters and make use of an effective pounce technique using their strong springy legs which allow them to reach heights of 3.6 metres in one pounce. This is what earned the title of most efficient hunter of all the cats! Spotting one in action would be a thrilling sight to see. 

Keep your eyes open and keep looking for elusive species!

A leopard standing in a dirt road, looking back towards the camera. Cascading light is hitting the cat and it’s a beautiful afternoon setting.

Perhaps it is the mystery of what these strange creatures get up to in the dead of night, or perhaps it is because they are rarely seen that makes them such an exciting spot on a game drive. Seeing one of these elusive little animals is definitely worth some bragging rights amongst wildlife enthusiasts – and even guides and trackers. 

You could be on a night drive, watching a serval stalk through the bushes, very soon! Join a Bushwise course and make your career all about wildlife. Apply today.


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