By ANNE BESTON



Like all kittens, Auckland Zoo's tiny serval is likely to be a big hit with young visitors when he finally finds his feet.



But that will be some weeks away because serval kittens crawl before they can walk on their unusually long legs.



Those legs and long necks help them to find prey over the high grasslands of their native Africa and are just two of the unusual characteristics of the small cats.

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They also have a call that sounds more like a large bird and servals love playing in something most domestic cats take trouble to avoid: water.



Their outsize ears also give them impressive listening skills - they can hear a small rodent up to 6m away.



The zoo's serval kitten is the first born in Australasia for 10 years and his birth will be a big asset to the future of the threatened species, says spokeswoman Jane Healy.



The birth is part of a captive breeding programme the zoo is taking part in because serval numbers continue to fall in Africa.



Servals are still hunted for their pelts and shot by farmers who see them as a threat to domestic fowls and smaller livestock.



The shrinking of grasslands means the cats are also running out of habitat.



Ms Healy says the kitten, which will be given a Zulu name, brings valuable new blood into the breeding programme.



Late last year the zoo imported a male serval, Indlozi, who mated with 5-year-old Mzimba.



It is hoped Indlozi will now mate with the zoo's other female.



The kitten is Mzimba's first and she is still getting the hang of being a mother.



"She's very protective but is becoming more confident by the day," says zoo keeper Sandra Rice.



"But it's really important we let nature take its course and let mum do the rearing."



In the United States, servals fetch up to US$2000 ($4500) as exotic domestic pets.