Nimeona kisutu, mwenye kisutu sijamwona

Friday, 3 April 2009


by Helle Goldman, Jon Winther-Hansen and Martin Walsh

[This is the text of an article published in 2004 in Nature East Africa, 34 (2): 5-7.]

Servaline Genets Genetta servalina have long been known from Central Africa and isolated patches in East Africa, but it was not until the 1990s that they were documented on Unguja, the main island of the Zanzibar archipelago. In 1995 Tony Archer acquired a dried, somewhat damaged skin and skull in the village of Kitogani, in the south–central part of Unguja. This specimen was subsequently described as belonging to a new subspecies of Servaline Genet, G. s. archeri (Van Rompaey and Colyn, 1998).

In January 2003 live Zanzibar Servaline Genets were photographed for the first time. Camera traps set up in Jozani–Chwaka Bay National Park yielded pictures of these endemic genets at four locations: two in the lush groundwater forest that comprises the heart of the park: two in the dry scrub to the north-east. As well as providing information about the genet’s occurrence and distribution, these pictures have also added to our knowledge of its physical characteristics, including the colour of its pelt (Goldman and Winther-Hansen, 2003a; 2003b).

Like other members of the viverrid family which are adapted to forest life, Servaline Genets are boldly marked. Their bodies have black spots against a tan to ochre background and their long tails are ringed in black and light-coloured bands. The combined length of the head and body is about 41–50 cm, the tail is 35–44 cm long and they weigh in the range of 1 to 2 kg (Kingdon, 1997). That an animal of the Servaline Genet’s dimensions and striking appearance can have eluded scientific discovery until just a few years ago on the flat, relatively small and very densely inhabited island of Unguja is challenging to explain, even if they are shy, solitary and nocturnal.

Rural Zanzibaris have of course known about the Servaline Genet all along and have described it in their own terms to curious naturalists. Unfortunately few researchers have systematically recorded the local Swahili dialect names for small carnivores or attempted to identify them in the field (the principal exception being Pakenham, 1959).

In the case of the Servaline Genet this problem is made more acute by the fact that it seems to be given different local names – and while some informants recognize these as the names of a single animal, others believe that they refer to different species.

In the course of our own field research on Unguja, over the past decade, we have elicited a number of different local names that individual informants give to the Servaline Genet – or at least to a small carnivore that partly matches its description – though there is by no means unanimous agreement on this score. The most widespread name is ushundwi (variant ushundi) and there seems to be little doubt that this is indeed a name for the Servaline Genet. A similar degree of confidence applies to another name, uchui, though this is much less widely known. This second name (and its variant uchui umwangu) refers to the leopard-like characteristics of the genet, chui being the common Swahili name for leopards.

Informants are rather less certain about a third name, uhange, sometimes identified with ushundwi and uchui, but often described as a different animal, which is reddish in colour (though not to be confused with the rufous Zanzibar Slender Mongoose, Herpestes sanguineus rufescens).

Similar doubt exists over the proper application of another, less common, term, ukwiri.

Van Rompaey & Colyn (1998) suggest that both of these names – which were first recorded by Pakenham (1959) – might refer to the Zanzibar Servaline Genet, but this remains to be proven.

Further research is needed to sort out these ethnotaxonomic uncertainties, linking local names and descriptions to actual specimens and observations in the field. It may also be that the current inventory of Unguja’s small carnivores is incomplete. The recent scientific discovery and photo-trapping of the Zanzibar Servaline Genet suggest that perhaps this small Indian Ocean island has yet to give up all of its zoological secrets. It is quite possible that Unguja is home to other undescribed endemic small carnivores, unknown to science, but known to rural Zanzibaris by one or more of the names discussed above.


Goldman, H. V. and Winther-Hansen, J. 2003a. The Small Carnivores of Unguja: Results of a Photo-trapping Survey in Jozani Forest Reserve, Zanzibar, Tanzania. Tromsø: privately printed.

Goldman, H. V. and Winther-Hansen, J. 2003b. ‘First Photographs of the Zanzibar Servaline Genet, Genetta servalina archeri, and Other Endemic Subspecies on the Island of Unguja, Tanzania’, Small Carnivore Conservation 29: 1-4.

Kingdon, J. 1997. The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. San Diego: Academic Press.

Pakenham, R. H. W. 1959. ‘Kiswahili Names of Birds and Beasts in the Zanzibar Protectorate’, Swahili: The Journal of the East African Swahili Committee 29 (1): 34-54.

Van Rompaey, H. and Colyn, M. 1998. ‘A New Servaline Genet (Carnivora, Viverridae) from Zanzibar Island’, South African Journal of Zoology 33: 42–46.

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