Having exhausted ‘world’s biggests’ and ‘world’s tallests’, it seems the UAE is looking for more records to break. These cute sand kittens are not only a world first, but their very existence is creating all sorts of excitement about how other local species – including the critically endangered Arabian leopard, of which only a few exist in the UAE wilderness – can be saved from extinction. Al Ain Wildlife Park’s Farshid Merhdadfar tells us why.
Al Ain Wildlife Park is home to the first sand kittens to be born following in-vitro fertilisation and embryo transfer. Why is it such a big deal?
The number of sand cats in our collection [the park has 32, the largest group of captive sand cats in the world] gave us the option to use a semen donor, an egg donor and a surrogate mother, which is pretty unique. We infused the semen and egg to create an embryo, then transferred it to a surrogate mother, which has never been done with sand cats anywhere in the world. The mother who went through the gestation is a surrogate – the kittens don’t have any DNA signature from the mother.
How will that affect breeding of the species?
What makes it exciting conservation-wise is that now we can entertain the idea of bringing semen from a sand cat in California and bringing an egg from a female in Saudi Arabia, and put that embryo in a surrogate mother here to produce kittens. We need to diversify the genetic value of the animals. The more diverse it is, the more successful we will be in captive breeding of that population.
What does that mean?
When the population in the wild depletes, we could introduce [captive] animals into the wild. It also gives us the opportunity to reduce the number of animals captured in the wild for breeding programmes. It opens up how we can contribute to the overall good of the species everywhere. And bear in mind that it is much, much easier to transfer test tubes around the world than it is to translocate animals.
So if you make more sand kittens this way, will you start introducing them into the wild?
Right now our focus is not about reintroduction of the animals into the wild; our focus is how we can increase the genetic value of the sand cats in captive populations. After all, one of the roles of any wildlife park or zoological facility is to serve as a safety valve for a given species. The ultimate goal could include reintroduction, but before that we need to make sure we have perfected the system. From where we are now, I even hesitate to bring re-introduction into the picture because we have a lot of work in front of us.
Still, looking ahead, could this potentially help other vulnerable species in the UAE, such as the Arabian leopard?
We’re going to work hard to make sure the ‘survivability’ of our focus species is great, and certainly that collections within captive environments are as high as we can possibly make them. The Arabian leopard is one of our focus species, just like the sand cat. God willing, somewhere down the road we’ll have the numbers [of captive Arabian leopards] so that we can carry out a project such as this.
You can see the sand cats alongside many other animals from Arabia and Africa, including extremely rare African white lions, at Al Ain Wildlife Park & Resort daily from 10am-7pm. Entry is Dhs15 for adults and Dhs5 for children. Call free on 800 2977, or see www.awpr.ae.
Meet the sand cats
• Sand cats are listed as ‘threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
• Populations are declining owing to habitat loss and reduced populations of prey species.
• They are the smallest member of the cat family found in Arabia.
• Al Ain Wildlife Park is home to 20 per cent of the world’s captive sand cats.
• The species is native to the Middle East and the UAE.
• Living in stony and sandy desert regions, they must survive temperature changes of -5°C up to 58°C.
• Sand cats usually eat birds, hares, reptiles and insects. They’ve even been known to take on poisonous snakes, such as the horned sand viper.