Chorley, our resident serval cat, has been raised at Lilongwe Wildlife Centre since he was one month old, after a Department of National Parks and Wildlife officer spotted him being sold on the side of the road near the Mozambique border in 2011. Due to his sight problems – he has cataracts – he can’t ever be released back into the wild. Servals, part of the Felidae family, are one of the smaller cat species, with an average weight of between 11 and 13kg and a natural range of up to 30 square kilometres. Their coats have a black or dark brown pattern, but can also feature shades of orange, tawny and russet. In Malawi, servals are often killed for these coats, which are sold or used in traditional events.
Being the centre’s only serval, Chorley was used to having a large, natural enclosure all to himself. But this all changed last year when we received another serval – this one a female called Malila. Born in 2005, Malila and her two siblings were rescued when they were very young. It was soon discovered that Malila was unable to use her hind legs, with x-rays showing that her knee joints weren’t properly developed. The kittens were rehabilitated and her two siblings were eventually released, but, despite intensive physiotherapy, it was clear that Malila would not survive in the wild. So Malila was brought to the Wildlife Centre with the intention of integrating her with Chorley.
After her initial medical screening, Malila was placed in an enclosure next to Chorley – the first step in their introduction. It was unknown how the two servals would respond to each other, since both had been living by themselves for such a long time. But I was hopeful, because although servals are solitary in the wild, only pairing up to reproduce, a male/female combination is possible in a captive setting. Chorley was soon spotted near the fence of Malila’s enclosure, picking up her smell and while it took a week for Malila to become comfortable in her new home, she was soon intrigued by Chorley as well. Once both animals were used to each other’s presence, it was time to open the enclosure and let them be together…
During the first evening, Malila didn’t make a move and neither did Chorley. On day two, after dark, Malila decided to take her first tentative steps outside, while Chorley stayed away. When the sun came up, they were both spotted and everything was calm. The volunteers and I kept our distance so as not to disturb them, using binoculars to observe their interactions. In the days that followed, the two were uneasy; Malila was passive aggressive, often hissing, while Chorley seemed restless. During the first two weeks, I wasn’t sure if they would settle down, and while there was never any physical aggression, the negative interaction would diminish their welfare in the long run.
Then one early morning I received a phone call: could I rush over to the servals – something has changed! Not knowing what I would find, I ran over and there they were, sitting together, licking each other intensively on their faces. It was beautiful – these cats were enjoying a full on make-out session! It was a breakthrough. Over the following days, they were often seen in close proximity to each other and even started to share the shelter.
It has been months since Malila and Chorley first met and the integration has been an absolute success. The pair are not always seen together – she still likes the tall grass and he spends his lazy days hiding underneath tree trunks – but when the night falls, they come out of their hiding spots and it’s at that time that a lucky observer will see them interacting.