The Fierce But Forgotten Sandcat Makes a Comeback After 10 Years

Not much is known about the sandcat, a resilient desert-dwelling species that roams parts of North Africa, Arabia, and Central Asia.

A night wanderer, this cat gets all the water it needs from its prey (small birds, reptiles, and mammals). Spottings, though, are quite rare—sand cats are listed as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and as endangered in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Their decline in numbers is probably due to either habitat loss or a dip in the numbers of prey species—or both. What’s more, in some parts of the UAE, the cat hasn’t been seen for up to 10 years; the last unconfirmed, merely anecdotal sighting was reported in 2005.

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About 39% of the sightings Ahmed's team experienced were recorded during a full moon.

Here’s Natasha Khaleeq, reporting for New Scientist:

Shakeel Ahmed, an assistant scientist at The Environment Agency—Abu Dhabi (EAD), grew tired of reading anecdotal reports and decided to look for the cats himself.

In 2015, he led a team studying the animals and plants of the Baynouna—a protected area in Abu Dhabi. They baited camera traps with cat food over several months and eventually managed to get 46 photos, which the team later identified as being of three individuals. Sightings were usually late on moonlit nights and at cooler times, suggesting the cats prefer medium to low temperatures of between 11 and 28 °C. Their habitat was in sparsely vegetated sand dunes.

The team also set traps for small animals, and caught Cheeseman’s gerbils and the lesser jerboa. Other sightings on the camera included the urchin beetle, and reptiles such as Arabian sand skink and gecko. All these mean there is plenty of food available in the region for the sand cat.

Recorded observations could make a big difference in ensuring the cat’s overall survival as a species. Ahmed and his team hope that their work will lead to deeper and more informed conservation efforts—both for the sandcat and for its relatives dealing with similar environmental problems.