Scientists have declared a breakthrough in the protection of rare Arabian sand cats despite three kittens dying shortly after being born from artificial insemination.
Although hailed as an initial success, failure of the latest efforts to breed the rare cats in captivity at Al Ain Zoo have emphasised the challenges facing conservationists and scientists in preserving endangered species.
The zoo collaborated with scientists at the Centre for Research of Endangered Wildlife and experts at Cincinnati Zoo, Ohio, following more than 15 years of research into the reproductive biology of sand cats.
Sperm samples from sands cats in Al Ain were collected, frozen and used for research into artificial insemination at Crew laboratories in Cincinnati, reported state news agency Wam.
“Despite their death, the birth of the three cats is considered a great success,” said Omar Al Blooshi, spokesman for Al Ain Zoo.
“Careful research and planning by Crew scientists overcame several challenges with artificial insemination that had previously hindered success.”
The sand cat, also know as the sand dune cat, can be found across the deserts of Arabia, northern Africa and central Asia.
The solitary animals are notoriously timid and usually spend hot daylight hours in shallow burrows before emerging at night to hunt rodents.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global conservation network, lists the species as animals of Least Concern, despite their relatively low population densities. In the UAE, however, their numbers remain low, with research in 2005 suggesting just 250 animals survived in the emirate of Abu Dhabi.
Al Ain Zoo — which began its sand cat conservation programme in 2013 — currently has 40 of the animals, the largest captive population anywhere in the world.
“We carry out research to study the sand cat’s numbers and habitat in addition to carrying out genetic studies that have improved captive population management,” said Mr Al Blooshi.
The collaboration between Al Ain and Cincinnati is the latest example of international partnerships attempting to preserve endangered species in the UAE.
Dugongs — a marine mammal from the same family as the sea cow — and carpet sharks are other rare species in the Emirates facing threats from climate change and human intervention, although conservationists claim progress is being made.
Today, experts at the Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi and the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment continue to examine wide-ranging methods to help preserve vulnerable species.
The particularly harsh environment of the Middle East poses many challenges for marine life in particular, including high temperatures and salinity.
Similarly, human-led environmental threats through coastal development, desalination plants, and oil and gas exploration have also threatened numerous species by damaging natural habitats.
"Abu Dhabi has been leading the role in the field of the conservation locally, and recognises the political and economic importance of conservation," Maitha Al Hameli, lead specialist in marine threatened species and habitats at the EAD, told The National.
“When it comes to the marine environment, Abu Dhabi has been investing in conservation of the main umbrella species — dugongs, marine turtles and dolphins, with ongoing monitoring and conservation programmes.”
Through its Dugong Conservation Program, the EAD is currently studying the extent and density of seagrass beds in an effort to learn how best to protect them as an important nutrition source.
The Sharks Educational Institute, based in the Canary Islands, has also been carrying out research into shark numbers in UAE waters, as well as offering courses for divers in Dibba and Abu Dhabi on how to spot rare species and assess marine damage.
“Right now we are working on certifying new carpet shark divers and bringing more people in to dive and observe their natural habitat in Abu Dhabi waters,” said Fernando Reis, the institute’s executive director.
“As far as we have been studying and researching, little is still known by scientists about population numbers.
“Due to progressive habitat degradation we believe they need much more protection. There's still time to do something for this small and beautiful species.
“We really believe the carpet shark needs to be better known, so we’re working on bringing their plight to common public knowledge.”