One of the 32 sand cats in captivity at Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort, which is collaborating with the Cincinnati Zoo on an artificial breeding programme. Lauren Lancaster / The National
The sand cat, an animal so stealthy it is rarely seen, looks as if it is made to comfort and be comforted; a cat for the lap, not the extremes of a lonely desert. Even its claws are dull.
But dhubs and vipers know better.
First of all, it is unlikely that a dhub lizard finds anything other than another spiny-tail remotely cute. Secondly, the fluffy sand cat, forged on the anvil of desolation, as it were, eats them for breakfast.
Despite a superficial similarity to its domestic cousins, the broad-faced sand cat avoids human contact and is a master at shunning and escaping the attentions of the wider world.
Its extremely furry feet a dense mat of long, wavy hairs sprouting from the underside that almost obscures the foot pads, so suited for movement on the sands and ambushing prey leave tracks that are at best ambiguous and frequently non-existent, while its light sandy-coloured coat is lost against the desert background.
How about spotting one at a water hole? Forget it. The self-reliant sand cat gets all the moisture it needs from the fluid content of its prey.
Stumbling upon one almost never happens. It is a nocturnal cat that burrows and sleeps out of sight during the day. When researchers try to locate one at night by shining spotlights across the sands, hoping to catch the retinal reflections, well, the sand cat simply lowers its eyelids.
]]> In short, in the UAE, as within most of their range, sand cats are rarely spotted by anyone, anywhere, ever.
Like the sand cat, Peter Cunningham, an ecologist, has an abiding interest in spiny-tailed lizards and a thirst for desert solitude, which he seeks out when others of his species have beaten a hasty retreat.
“Most think it is crazy,” he says, “[but] I like to go out in the desert in the summer. There’s nobody else there, and you can see things that you otherwise or normally don’t see, especially reptile-wise.”
Late one morning in July 2001, Mr Cunningham was northeast of Al Ain, busy with the niceties of dhub burrow description, moving from one to the next, painstakingly assessing orientation, size of openings, distances between and sub-surface temperatures.
To get a better view, he headed towards a rise, a calcrete outcrop amid the gravel flats and sand dunes, and caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. Impossibly, it was a sand cat.
“It was quite a shock,” he recalls. “I didn’t expect it, of course; I was focusing on dhubs at the time.”
So, in all probability, was the sand cat. Uncomfortably close at about five metres, the animal retreated a short distance but, instead of fleeing, stopped and studied the intruder.
“I was watching this cat and it was watching me,” Mr Cunningham says. “It seemed unwilling to run away, but then the area was surrounded by open sand and he was in the best place to hide or avoid me at the time.”
The pair spent a magical minute in communion, “the cat probably thinking, ‘A human out at midday? Must be a crazy scientist’”, before disappearing into some cavity in a rocky outcrop.
Mr Cunningham, 44, now working out of the King Khalid Wildlife Research Centre in Saudi Arabia, never saw the cat again, but when he returned to civilisation he discovered his encounter was the first confirmed sighting of a live sand cat in the UAE.
There had been anecdotal reports, a few records of dead animals and some sand cats had shown up in the pet souks, though no one could say exactly where they had come from.
“Everybody said it was ‘the sand towards the south’,” says Mr Cunningham, perhaps the Liwa area, or Umm Al Zamool, the presumed favoured habitat, but nothing specific.
His subsequent discovery of spiny-tail lizard remains strewn about the den entrance was also a bit of a puzzle. The sand cat is supposedly strictly nocturnal, at least when not disturbed, while the dhub is only active during the day.
A wild sand cat caught in a fence in Saudi Arabia, where the National Wildlife Research Centre has recorded a decline in numbers. Courtesy Moayyad Sher Shah
Maybe, speculated Mr Cunningham, there could be some overlap in the summer when the lizards might still be out at dusk or, perhaps, the sand cat gets them from the burrow. “Nobody has actually seen it in action,” he says, though dhub remains have also been recorded in the faeces of sand cats in Israel.
Dhubs aside, the sand cat’s menu is most likely to feature insects, rodents and small lizards. More famously, though, one of the animals was observed successfully taking on and eating a sand viper in northern Africa.
The cat was apparently so engrossed in the process, says Mr Cunningham, that it paid no heed to the nearby onlookers and, once it had dispatched the snake, tucked in to its hard-earned meal.
Usually, the sand cat is likely to bat its prey silly with those cute paws before delivering the coup de grâce of a killing bite, but it is the animal’s unusually and wonderfully wide head and well-spaced ears that may be the real means for bringing in its sometimes subterranean meals.
That broad head houses ear architecture that differs significantly from that of other small cats, allowing it to hear sounds not only at greater distances but also at a greater range of frequencies, meaning that a gerbil’s “ahem” and the scrape of a sand skink will not go unnoticed.
At just 27, Moayyad Sher Shah is one of the handful of people in the world who can boast more than one wild sand cat experience.
A field researcher with the National Wildlife Research Centre (NWRC) in the Saudi city of Taif, he has been conducting seasonal carnivore trapping in the protected areas of central Saudi Arabia since 2001 and during that time has trapped and released 56 sand cats.
While that may seem a high number for a supposed phantom, Mr Sher Shah has nevertheless documented a precipitous drop in numbers in the past few years. This year, he has not seen any and the year before he caught only a handful.
The culprits, in the estimation of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which lists the sand cat as “near threatened”, are the degradation and loss of habitat and the concomitant reduction in prey.
Mr Sher Shah suspects the situation is the same in the UAE, and Mr Cunningham agrees. Sand cats “don’t like any activity or disturbance and they seem to move away from human settlements; now that people are going in and creating these camel farms all over the show with lots of activity, and all those in the dunes, that’s quite disturbing to the sand cats. They would move away from those areas,” he says.
And they are capable of moving great distances, says Mr Sher Shah, who has played a lead role in ecological studies of the sand cat initiated by the NWRC in 2004.
Tracking made possible by radio collars revealed that cats regularly travelled five or six kilometres a night in search of prey, and doubled that distance when hunting over degraded or over-grazed areas. The home ranges of seven collared cats came in between 20 and 51 square kilometres.
Mr Sher Shah discovered that in the heat of summer, sand cats rest in dens during the day, but will not usually return to the same den or burrow two days in a row. They dig their simple dens quickly and efficiently, but in winter they tend to lie under a bush or other available shade rather than retreating underground.
Mr Sher Shah and Mr Cunningham both believe the reason so few have been sighted in the UAE is partly because no one has looked seriously, but also because of a naturally low density. The numbers are likely to get lower as habitats are disturbed, combined with the remoteness of their preferred ranges and their penchant for secrecy.
While chances of seeing the sand cat in the wild are practically nil, you would be hard-pressed to miss them at the Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort, where the population of 32 practically equals the total number of captive sand cats in the whole of North America.
And, if all goes according to plan and Farshid Mehrdadfar, the park’s manager of animal collections, has his fingers crossed they may eclipse that total within the next few months.
For the past two weeks, researchers affiliated with the Cincinnati Zoo have been on site at the park, consummating, in more ways than one, a collaborative project concerning the use of assisted reproductive technologies in captive sand cats.
According to one of the principal researchers, Dr Jason Herrick, an assistant professor in veterinary biosciences at the University of Illinois and a collaborator with the Cincinnati Zoo research team since 2004, the goal is to use techniques such as artificial insemination, in vitro fertilisation and embryo transfer to help manage and enrich the genetic variability in captive sand cat populations.
“These techniques will allow us to produce offspring in pairs that cannot, or will not, breed naturally,” he says. “Similarly, we can transport frozen sperm and/or embryos between different zoos, or different countries, without having to transport the animals themselves.”
Recently, Dr Herrick and Dr William Swanson, the director of research at the Cincinnati Zoo, completed a two-year study of captive sand cats that involved characterising their basic reproductive traits and developing robust methods for sperm cryopreservation and in vitro fertilisation. The obvious next step, though not a small one, was to test those methods by attempting to produce some kittens.
Last week in Al Ain, says Mr Mehrdadfar, fresh sperm and eggs collected from carefully selected cats were combined, in vitro, to produce sand cat embryos. The embryos were then transferred into four host cats that had recorded successful pregnancies in the past, with other embryos frozen for later use with captive cats in the US.
“If one of these cats goes through pregnancy and pops out kittens I’m going to be dancing in the square,” says Mr Mehrdadfar. Even if he is denied his dance, they will persevere with their commitment to the project and the species: “We’re not going to just stop and shy away.”
This, he says, “is the very first time this has been done”, and the techniques they are developing hold promise not only for inter-zoo gene transfers, but also the potential for harvesting gametes directly from wild populations without having to take the animals into a captive setting.
Assisted reproductive technologies might also help get around the thorny problem of mate selection when computer and committee suggestions go unheeded by the felines involved.
Captive populations, explains Dr Herrick, “are managed to maintain genetic diversity, which may not go well with the animal’s preferences in a mate.
“Just because the male is genetically valuable and mating would be great for the population doesn’t necessarily mean the female is going to think he is the sand cat version of Brad Pitt.”