How a South African industrial site is providing a safe haven for wild cats

Ever since the industrial revolution, human activities have resulted in rapid environmental changes including degradation, fragmentation, and destruction of habitat, climate change and biodiversity loss. Animals, such as large carnivores, are often among the first to disappear as human disturbance increases.

We made a startling discovery that provides another example of wildlife thriving in an industrial site. We found that servals, a wild cat, were living in the shadow of a huge petrochemical plant in South Africa.

Using repeated camera trap surveys we found that serval were present – and thriving – at the Secunda Synfuels Operations plant 140 km east of Johannesburg. Constructed to help cope with the fuel embargo imposed on apartheid-era South Africa, the plant processes coal into a petroleum-like product. As part of this production process it emits 20 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. The plant, which covers an area of around 85 km², supports a serval population density—the number of animals in a given area—far greater than any other site on record across the entire range of the species.

Over several years we also used live traps to capture and release servals at the plant, allowing us to identify their sex and age – something that was not possible using our camera traps. This showed us that the population structure appeared to be stable and normal. This suggests that the high density was not a temporary situation, but a long-term trend.

The cases of modified environments benefitting wildlife should not be taken as evidence that industrialisation is generally a good thing for wildlife. As humans modify natural habitats biodiversity tends to suffer, and it is of paramount importance that we curb our impact on the environment. But our findings suggest that even heavily industrialised sites can still have conservation value.