Desert life made sand cats a hardy lot – with one bad habit

They may look cute and cuddly, but Arabian sand cats are tough, hardy hunters who live in the harsh environment of the desert.

Arabian Sand cats at Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort.
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AL AIN // For the most part, it looks like any domestic cat. And with its wide, flat face, big ears and perfectly oval eyes, it is almost cartoonishly cute.

But don't be fooled. When the Arabian sand cat spots a mouse, its demeanour changes. It flattens itself, slinking along the sand, capturing its prey in the blink of an eye.

"That is when you know it is a wildcat," says Rashed Al Qamzi, a supervisor at Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort.

Al Ain's zoo has 31 Arabian sand cats - 16 males and 15 females. The smallest member of the cat family found in Arabian Peninsula, the sand cat also lives in North Africa and central Asia.

"You can't help but be mesmerised by the way the sand cat moves," says Mr Al Qamzi, an Emirati. "It is very light on its feet, almost flying about. And it can become flat like a cardboard cutout, so you don't see it against the sand.

"Their large ears are set low on the side, which makes them very sensitive to any sound."

The cat takes its Latin name, Felis margarita, from a French general, Jean Auguste Margueritte, who led an expedition to the Sahara in the 1850s. He captured one of the cats from the desert between Libya and Algeria.

Its coat is thick and pale, ranging from sandy brown to grey, while its belly, chest and lower muzzle are white. Its limb and tail have black markings. Standing 26 centimetres tall at the shoulder and weighing up to 3 kilograms, it is shorter and stockier than a domestic cat.

"They are quite tough," says Mr Al Qamzi. "They can take on and eat poisonous snakes, like the horned sand viper.

"But they also purr - not exactly like a house cat, a bit more subtle - and meow loudly like any other cat when it wants your attention."

Nocturnal, the cats spend their days in burrows that they dig or find in sand dunes.

Once the sun goes down, they can wander up to five kilometres a night in search of food such as small birds, jerboas (a type of hopping desert rodent), hares, reptiles and insects.

They get their water from their prey, allowing them to roam a long way from water, and can endure extreme temperatures, from as cold as minus 5°C to up to 58°C. Thick fur between their toes protects their feet from the scorching desert sand. "They are real survivors," says Mr Al Qamzi.

But the cats have one habit that has led the International Union for Conservation of Nature to class them as "near threatened". When pursued, they freeze, thinking they cannot be seen against the sand.

"The poor things would be shot and killed that way just for sport," says Mr Al Qamzi.

Solitary by nature, they come together only for mating. They are seasonal breeders, usually giving birth in April to two to five kittens.

But they are rarely seen in the wild, and there are no accurate figures for how many may live amid the sands of the UAE.

Al Ain's zoo does what it can for its cat clan. In 2010, the first kitten was born through in-vitro fertilisation. But one battle is constantly fought: against the cats' urge to roam.

"We do what we can to replace what they would have in the wild by keeping them busy and active," says Mr Al Qamzi.

Besides rodents to catch, they are given balls, ropes, grass, snakeskins and peacock feathers to stimulate their curiosity. "We have to enrich their senses and natural instincts, as they actually get bored and depressed if they have nothing to do," says Mr Al Qamzi. "They like to investigate the origin of things they come in contact with. They are smart kitties."

Despite their appearance, there should be no doubt that they are very different from domestic cats.

"They are not pets and none of the wild cats should ever be kept as pets," says Mr Al Qamzi. "They always end up ill, mishandled or even abused due to ignorance."