Manja, a dark long-legged African wildcat, Wanders Tanzania’s Serengeti.

Servals are a cat with a cheetah-like fur that features dark patches and lines. Melanism is a distinct characteristic inherited by a dominant gene that causes an increase in the excretion of the pigment melanin, which is present in the skin, wings, and fur. It is the pigment that makes human skin dark. Servals are primarily found in African nations south of the Sahara. But there are just four documented areas on the continent’s east side where servals are seen.

Spottings of black servals in Kenya and Tanzania have added to the growing evidence suggesting a robust number of these dark cats hidden in East Africa’s grasslands. Furthermore, because servals are famously secretive, determining the actual number of melanistic cats throughout East Africa can be difficult. When a black cat passes one’s way, it is thought to bring bad luck. Black cats have long been seen as a terrible sign and linked to witches and evil. Finding a melanistic serval cat in the wilderness, on the other hand, is more of a lucky chance.

Manja, a beautiful dark serval cat, was spotted in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park’s wilderness of Namiri Plains. The serval cat is called “Manja” after the Asilia Africa (a safari business) guide and ecologist who first noticed him.

With tawny-coloured hair and prominent dark patches, lines, and stripes, a ‘typical’ serval seems like this:

Mary McDonald / Minden Pictures
Mary McDonald / Minden Pictures

However, as per photojournalist Marc Mol, only four such melanistic Servals were observed in the wilderness in East Africa until Manja was spotted.
“I never imagined such a scene after over 4 decades and 50+ trips to this magnificent eastern hemisphere.” Spotting a “garden type” serval is tough at the best of circumstances, so tracking this little cat wasn’t going to be easy. I spent over three weeks following. “It was a unique venture to see this majestic tiny predator hunt. You must adore those gorgeous golden eyeballs!” the photojournalist on his website.

Seeing Manja is rare not just because of his darker pigmentation or because he lives in an unusual place for wild canids, but because M has preferred to dwell on the Namiri Plains. The Namiri Plains, also recognized as the Serengeti’s big cat sanctuary, is a place dominated by lions and big cats. So our brave tiny cat needs confidence, expertise, and guts to defend his position.

Darker pigmentation impacts a minimum of 13 of the 37 feline varieties on the planet. Black panthers are by far the most well-known of the melanistic felines. Panthers aren’t a distinct species; instead, they are an umbrella word for dark-coloured leopards in African countries and jaguars in South America.

Manja’s black fur is caused due to her elasticity, which causes her usually golden, brown speckled fur to turn entirely black. This occurs mainly in East Africa’s upland areas, about 2,000 meters high. The ‘thermal melanism theory,’ according to researchers, suggests that species that thrive in higher elevations experience lower temperatures making them more melanistic. Their elasticity helps them get more sunlight, heat up faster, and maintain capacity. Moreover, according to this theory, dark colouring might be an adaptive or practical benefit at high elevations since it prevents Uv radiation.

Dark people are typically found at higher altitudes. At roughly 1,000 meters high, Namiri Plains is far less than the elevation where melanism occurs. As a result, this argument doesn’t apply to servals, as the most recent observations of the species were in pretty low locations. Manja is thought to have arrived from the adjacent Ngorongoro Crater to create a new homeland. The only thing to say is that there is much to study about East Africa’s melanistic servals, which is still a puzzle!

Credit: George Benjamin / @georgetheexplorer

Photographer George Benjamin was fortunate enough to spot Manja in October 2020.

Benjamin had commented on Instagram, ” I can’t convey how shocking this was. To put things in perspective, even viewing a “typical” serval is difficult. They’re cautious, stealthy cats who prefer to dwell in grasslands, which is the ideal mix for avoiding detection. My heart is racing every time I have had the opportunity of seeing them.”

We can’t assure that if Manja found a partner, and therefore, that he would be able to make melanistic babies. However, it was announced in July 2020 that Manja had found a partner (thanks to his attractive physical beauty!). A pup was born In the middle of September 2020, an infrequent occurrence.

Credit: Kabel Morgan
Credit: Kabel Morgan

Manja was spotted on August 6, 2021, when photojournalist Will Burrard-Lucas and his companion Keko were shooting on the grasslands. Keko saw what he assumed was a black serval in the distance. After examining the area, they were astounded to discover a black serval kitten hidden in the shrubs.

It was playing with its ‘normal’ sister.

After some days, Will and Keko returned to the location to get a closer look at the baby cat. They saw a ‘regular’ female serval and her two pups, one with the ‘typical’ dark-spotted darkened fur and the other entirely black. Manja and his mate had really created their third dark serval pup!

Manja’s partner is a serval with typical golden hair with black spots and lines.

Manja’s partner is a serval with typical golden hair with black spots and lines.

Will Burrard is the author of this piece.

Lucas Manja has become a star not just in the Serengeti but globally, having been published in several prestigious magazines and having his photos disseminated throughout the internet.

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