It isn’t difficult making excuses to go back to Africa. Smart guys will just go, because no matter exactly where you go or what you hunt, as Peter Capstick told us, “An African safari is the greatest adventure remaining on Earth.” Yes, but all too many of we crazy hunters, including me, set these absurd goals for ourselves. We want it all. I wanted a serval–that beautifully-spotted, short-tailed, lynx-sized cat that is so widespread…and yet so elusive.
Thirty-five years ago on a leopard bait, Barrie Duckworth and I watched a mating pair feeding, fighting and I guess something else-ing. If only I had known then that leopards are easy (comparatively), but servals are something else, unless, of course, you just get lucky, as many of my friends have. The serval occurs primarily in grassy plains and valleys from South Africa up through East Africa, and is probably most commonly taken, where legal, by chance encounter…if you’re lucky enough to encounter one. I never got lucky. As the years passed and the list of “untaken game” got shorter I looked harder and harder, but it wasn’t until 2010 when I actually saw another serval. I was in the Rungwa (a very good area for serval) with Michel Mantheakis. We certainly weren’t specifically hunting serval, which is almost impossible in daylight, but we were always looking. The one—and only one—we saw bolted from a patch of cover alongside the road, and it was going 500 miles an hour before we even recognized what it was. It kept going, out of our lives forever.
Now we get into permit problems. For instance, the serval is actually fairly common in coastal Mozambique where I’ve hunted a lot lately, but perhaps inexplicably, all the small cats are protected there. There’s no sense in even looking! In South Africa, some provinces allow serval to be hunted…and some do not. In 2013, hunting with my friend Mark Haldane in Natal, we saw several servals while night-hunting for jackals and such…but despite repeated (and pitiful) pleas to the game department a serval license could not be issued. But there had to be a way, and a place, and a time…
On that same hunt in 2013, I happened to make friends with South African hunter Benand Els, now manager of the (awesome) Safari & Outdoors store in Pretoria. At his home he had an amazing collection of southern African trophies, on average the best I had ever seen. In the mix were the two southern African trophies I still coveted most: A huge serval, and a really big brown hyena. I’ll save the shaggy dog for another story, but Benand hooked me up with his serval contact: Charl van Rooyen of Infinito Safaris. Although I was a total skeptic, Charl insisted that if I could give it just a few days (and nights) he could probably show me one.
Charl hunts in northern South Africa, on the border between Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces, with country varying from grassy plains to significant mountains. The serval is a creature of the plains, and agriculture helps because that increases the availability of mice, a primary prey. Also, when crops have been harvested the small serval becomes much more visible than in tall grass or uncut fields. The serval is very much a special animal and a specialized hunt, and van Rooyen has convinced some of his neighbors to leave them alone—and report sightings—so that he can, with some reliability, take two or three a year.
That sounded very good, but in actuality Charl lied to me. He didn’t show me a serval; he showed me three. While it must be understood that serval can be encountered any time when in serval country, the chances are very slim…as I’d learned through decades of hoping for one. Hunted specifically, it is primarily a night hunt, fully legal in some areas. Night hunting isn’t for everyone, but where legal it’s usually legal for good reason. With seriously nocturnal animals it offers the only reasonable chance for success. It isn’t for everybody, but I’ve always enjoyed it because it is so different from our North American norm. But that was the deal: It would be a night hunt.
On the first night we saw nothing. This is exactly what I expected; I’ve been on serval-goose-chases before, so I was neither surprised nor disappointed. On the second night, we saw a clearly small one and passed, and then we saw a larger serval. It was moving at some distance, wouldn’t come to the call, and we just couldn’t maneuver. I tried a Hail Mary shot that looked good, but night shooting isn’t easy—especially if you’re an American who has done so little of it. I missed, and I hated myself. It was cold, I was tired, and I had just blown a chance I’d waited years for.
Our one last place was a field of cut alfalfa and we saw one set of eyes…exactly where the landowner’s son said he’d been seeing a nice serval. We maneuvered a bit and I took the shot, greatly aided by Leupold’s FireDot lighted reticle. The bullet hit hard and the cat vanished—but it was right there. For me it was a big serval but, after all, how many have I actually seen up close? Just this one! It was plenty big enough, and after all these years I have no intention of looking for another.– Craig Boddington