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Shining a spotlight on the wide-roaming sand cat ‘king of the desert’

The sand cat (Felis margarita) is a small, elusive wildcat exquisitely adapted to thrive in the deserts of northern Africa, Southwest and Central Asia — some of the hottest, driest habitat on the planet. These felids are near-impossible to see in the daytime and difficult to track at night. As a result, little is known about the species.
Despite being challenged by limited resources, two European experts have repeatedly traveled to southern Morocco to study the sand cat. Their efforts, along with the rest of the Sand Cat Sahara Team, have led to the gathering of scientifically robust data that is lifting the lid on the secretive life of this tiny felid.
The sand cat’s status is listed by the IUCN as “least concern” because there is little evidence to indicate its numbers are declining. But data across regions remain scant. New findings from southern Moroccan sand cat study sites beg for this conclusion to be reassessed, with possibly fewer sand cats existing than past estimates indicate.
Tracking the sand cat’s changing conservation status is important because that data can indicate changes and trends in the ecologically sensitive environments in which they live. In addition, how they adapt, or fail to adapt, to climate change can give us clues to the resilience of species facing today’s extremes, especially desertification.
The sand cat flourishes in arguably some of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Felis margarita, also called the sand dune cat, is superbly adapted to the extreme heat and drought of the African Sahara, the largest desert on the planet. But while the species also inhabits a vast home range stretching across the driest parts of Southwest and Central Asia, the individual animals are nearly impossible to see by day and challenging to track by night.

They rarely if ever drink water, relying on the prey they eat for the H2O they need. Their creamy striped coats blend perfectly into sand and rock landscapes. Their tiny bodies, weighing no more than six pounds, slip easily under the small bushes that shade them from scorching desert sun, or into underground burrows that hide the cats from prying eyes.

Thick black fur between their toes protects paws from the burning sand. This, and strong howling desert winds, are why these nocturnal hunters leave no prints behind. Their large ears can swivel and funnel desert sounds to an exceptionally large middle ear cavity, allowing the cats to hear the faint scratching of burrowing rodents up to 600 feet away, as well as detect and evade scientists who want to radio collar and study them.

When ‘stars align’
Little is known about F. margarita. Historical records are rare, with the first description by science not coming until 1858. Their geographic range is patched together from reported and alleged sightings, scant camera trap records and speculation. According to a 2016 IUCN assessment, the species roams harsh, often inaccessible sandy and stony deserts from Mauritania and Morocco in the west, to Pakistan and Kazakhstan in the east.

And yet “sometimes the stars align,” notes Grégory Breton, director of Panthera France, an NGO. In such rare moments, a window opens, bringing scientists and sand cats together, shining a light on the behaviors of this small cat.

In 2012, reports of regular sand cat sightings emerged from the Sahara in Morocco’s Adrar Souttouf region, and also along a paved desert road in the country’s Atlantic region. Those tantalizing glimpses caught the attention of Breton and fellow cat expert Alexander Sliwa, the curator of Germany’s Cologne Zoo.

Earlier, Sliwa had served as chair of felids, while Breton had served as deputy chair, for the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. In those roles, both recognized captive sand cats as a favorite felid under their care. Also, Sliwa had already advised on the 2008 IUCN species assessment.

Out of curiosity, they organized a small expedition in 2013, traveling from France and Germany to Morocco in their free time; there, they located three of the small wildcats. This was enough to spur them on and ask the Moroccan government for permits to initiate official research.

Harnessing limited resources and enduring challenging desert field conditions, their ongoing research is slowly revealing the once-private life of the world’s only true desert cat. The gains have been hard won, and many questions about the elusive felid remain.

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