Daan Loock
A serval captured on a camera trap at an industrial site in South Africa. Photo Daan Loock.
  • A protected area around a massive coal liquefaction plant in Secunda has become a haven for serval.
  • The area – which doesn't exactly look like a wildlife haven – now has the densest known population of these wild cats anywhere on the planet.
  • The elusive hunters apparently love the rodent rich wetland, and aren't worried about what goes on next door.

The world’s largest coal liquefaction plant has some unusual neighbours: the densest population of serval, an African wild cat that feeds on rodents.

They can be found on a protected reserve used as a"‘buffer zone" around the Secunda Synfuels Operations plant operated by Sasol in Mpumalanga. 

The site spews 20 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, and visually resembles an industrial version of Mordor, the heartland of evil in "Lord of the Rings".

Researchers Samual Williams and Lourens Swanepoel, from the University of Venda, and Daan Loock from the University of the Free State, spent four years documenting these elusive predators.

Thanks to 34 camera traps that collected 3,590 days’ worth of trap footage, Williams says, the project identified 61 servals thriving in this rodent-rich wetland.

Live traps were also used to determine the genders and ages, which showed a good mix of old and young as well as males and females – indicating the population is growing at a stable rate.

Serval
Locations of camera traps and live traps at the Secunda Synfuels Operations plant in South Africa. Source: Nature Scientific Reports.

The team of scientists identified densities of 76 to 101 animals per 100 km², making it up to 12 times more dense than the populations found in other parts of the continent – which are not in industrial areas.

  • Luambe National Park, Zambia (9.9 animals per 100 km2)
  • Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda (9 animals per 100 km2)
  • Farmland in the Drakensberg Midlands, South Africa (6.5 animals per 100 km2 ) 

Because the area is protected by security and a large fence, humans and other competing carnivores have been kept out, allowing the population to thrive with little competition. 

Servals are hunted for their fur and are at times grudge-killed by farmers who perceive them to be a threat to their livestock.

While the researches do not advocate this as evidence that industrialisation can be a good thing for biodiversity, they say their findings suggest not ignoring the role industrial sites can play in protecting threatened species.

The research was first published on the website of international journal Nature, and in The Conversation.

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