British wildlife photographer George Benjamin, a.k.a. George the Explorer, happened to be in just the right place at the right time to get a picture of an extremely rare all-black serval cat in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania in October 2019.
Having heard rumors of a black serval in the area, with the help of a local guide from eco-tourism company Asilia Africa, Benjamin spotted one and photographed it at close range. The odds of seeing this elusive and unusual “melanistic” cat that camouflages in the tall grass of the park were slim. Servals, wrote Benjamin in a Reddit post, are “shy, secretive cats that tend to live in tall grasses—the perfect combination for staying unnoticed.”
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The black serval. Can’t describe how mind-blowing this was… and still is. For context, even seeing a “normal” serval is tough. They’re shy, secretive cats that tend to live in tall grasses — the perfect combination for staying unnoticed. Every time I’ve been privileged enough to see them, my heart skips a beat. Melanism (increased development of the dark-coloured pigment melanin in skin/hair) in servals primarily occurs in East Africa, particularly in the highland regions over 2000m, which is what makes this sighting particularly special. At around 1000m, the Namiri Plains, Tanzania, are considerably “lower” than the normal altitude were melanism is more prevalent. It’s likely this particular serval travelled from the nearby – and much higher – Ngorongoro Crater and established a new territory. Nobody *really* knows why melanism occurs in servals. Some think the increased altitude (and forested habitat that comes with it) reduces exposure to daylight, encouraging melanism. There’s no guarantee that “Manja” (named after the guide at @asiliaafrica who first spotted him), should he find a mate, will produce melanistic kittens. As melanism is carried by a recessive gene, it could be years before any begin appearing in the area. The hope, for now, is that he continues to flourish in the grasslands and build on his territory. Also, what serval could resist those charming good looks?! [D5, 500mm f/4]
Expecting disappointment when he set out, Benjamin recounted his surprise at what he saw. “The tops of a black shape moving through the long grasses,” he explained. “I pulled up the [binoculars], fully expecting to see a termite mound/log/anything but a serval.” When one appeared within camera range, he was thrilled.
While an ordinary serval is difficult enough to spot in the wild, photographing one with melanism—a condition that causes excessive dark pigmentation—is “super rare,” Benjamin explained, adding, “Sightings across Africa can be counted on two hands, with each being incredibly brief.”
In this particular case, Benjamin had a head start thanks to his guide, “a ridiculously talented naturalist,” as he described him, “able to pick out—and correctly identify—the tiniest birds at crazy distances. Just what I needed as this was, practically, [a] needle in a haystack.”
What’s more, Benjamin captured the image of the animal on the Namiri Plains, about 1,000 meters (more than 3,000 feet) lower than its normal mountain environment. On Instagram, the photographer speculated that “it’s likely this particular serval travelled from the nearby—and much higher—Ngorongoro Crater and established a new territory.”
Noting that melanism in cats, like red hair in humans, is a recessive genetic trait, Benjamin wrote that the serval might not pass his striking black fur on to kittens. “The hope, for now, is that he continues to flourish in the grasslands and build on his territory,” he added.
According to the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an organization in neighboring Kenya, cases of melanism exist in all types of wild cats, yet it remains a bit of a mystery.
Some theorize that melanism in cats occurs more often in high-altitude areas and forests, where they are less exposed to sunlight. What purpose melanism would serve in lowland areas, where black tends to stick out, is unclear.
Whatever the explanation, viewers on the internet were just as excited and fascinated as the photographer was. In addition to hundreds who congratulated and thanked Benjamin for photographing the beautiful specimen, a few noted the irony of his good luck in finding an animal long associated with bad luck in many parts of Europe.
“The only question is,” one user posted on Reddit, “are you super lucky to have an incredibly rare black cat cross your path … or, are you now the most unlucky person IN THE WORLD?” To which Benjamin responded in kind by assuring the commenter, “I had an eagle moth fly into my mouth earlier—hopefully that answers your question.”