Arabian Sand Cat Conservation and Research Programme

To holistically conserve Arabian sand cats in the United Arab Emirates


The sand cat (Felis margarita) is a flagship and enigmatic desert species, but is one of the least known of all cat species. It has a wide but patchy distribution in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Central Asia and Pakistan. Presence has been confirmed from only a few locations and no reliable estimates of population size or trend are available. Many aspects of their basic biology and ecology are poorly known. Four subspecies, including the Arabian sand cat (F. m. harrisoni), have been described, but the validity of these forms has not been confirmed genetically. The sand cat is currently classified as Near Threatened globally, but as Endangered in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Abu Dhabi. These assessments are based on limited scientific evidence; however, a CAMP report published in 2011 stated "real concern" over the status of the Arabian sand cat, that sand dune habitat continues to be lost and so the sand cat population is probably in decline. Sand cats are kept in many zoos mainly in the USA, Europe and the Middle East. The largest captive group is held at Al Ain Zoo in the UAE. The regional and global ex situ populations are currently unsustainable genetically and demographically.


Given this situation, Al Ain Zoo, in line with its commitment to the conservation of arid land and native wildlife, has made the Arabian sand cat one of its conservation focus species. A programme following the One Plan approach, the first for the Arabian region, is now underway. The programme began in September 2013 when Al Ain Zoo hosted a One Plan conservation planning meeting following CBSG guidelines. It was facilitated by a member of the IUCN SSC and attended by all regional institutions with sand cats in their collection, organisations working on in situ research, the IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group and government and non-government stakeholders based in the UAE. During the workshop delegates shared their knowledge, experience and ideas, and helped to establish conservation and research priorities. The outcomes were published in the 2014 Arabian Sand Cat Status Review and Conservation Strategy.


Since the One Plan workshop various other activities have been underway. A sand cat network has been established, which provides a library of all publications about the sand cat as well as presentations from the One Plan workshop. A research project in collaboration with Wildgenes (Royal Zoological Society of Scotland) has analysed the genetic diversity of the ex situ populations to inform population management. This research is now focussing on investigating whether genetic differences exist between the proposed subspecies of the sand cat across its natural range. The research is not yet complete, but has already produced interesting results.


In 2014, Al Ain Zoo hosted a second workshop that focussed on developing a population management plan for the ex situ population in Arabia. The workshop was attended by all regional institutions with sand cats in their collection, plus the international and European studbook keeper and a researcher from Wildgenes, and was facilitated by a member of the IUCN SSC. In early 2015, the outcomes were published in the very first Arabian Population Management Plan (APMP) and the first for the newly established Arabian Zoo and Aquarium Association. The APMP loosely follows the template of WAZA's Global Species Management Plan (GSMP). Arrangements for the first breeding exchanges under this plan are underway.


The next phase of the programme is to embark on in situ research to address the knowledge gaps of sand cat biology and ecology. Al Ain Zoo has designed a research project using its captive population, which will test various scent lures and hair snares that may be used in situ. This research will begin at the end of 2015. At the same time, a camera trapping survey is being planned with colleagues at the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi. It is hoped that this ambitious and unique programme will not only help to increase our knowledge of the sand cat and inform conservation management, but also provide a model for future programmes for other regional species. Thanks are expressed for the enthusiastic collaboration of all regional and international colleagues who have made this programme possible.


WAZA Conservation Project 15005 is implemented by Al Ain Zoo, with support provided by Le Parc des Félins, Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation, Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife, Omani Mammal Breeding Centre and The Scientific Center Kuwait. Other stakeholders involved in the project include Al Bustan Zoological Centre, Emirates Wildlife Society–World Wildlife Fund, Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group, National Wildlife Research Center, Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Taif University and United Arab Emirates University.




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