Surrogate sand kittens offer new hope

Two sand kittens at Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort are living proof that rare species can be sustained through assisted breeding, scientists hope.

Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort's sand kittens, the first to be born following an assisted breeding technique.
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ABU DHABI // Two sand kittens at Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort are living proof that rare species can be sustained through assisted breeding, scientists hope. The kittens, both female, were born in captivity 46 days ago to surrogate mothers. Yesterday, they were given their first set of vaccinations.

The births were brought about using a technique developed by American scientists that may eventually be employed to boost dwindling populations of larger cats, and even those in the wild. The first phase took place last October at the zoo, which houses the world's largest collection of captive sand cats, an animal so reclusive that little is known about it. Dr Bill Swanson, the director of research at Cincinnati Zoo, and Dr Jason Herrick, an associate professor in veterinary biosciences at the University of Illinois, collected genetic material from some of Al Ain's 34 male and female sand cats and used it to produce 50 embryos.

Four surrogate mothers were implanted with embryos, and two kittens were carried to term. "We are very enthusiastic about the project and about the fact we have been able to produce those kittens," said Dr Swanson. "This is the first time this has been successful with sand cats." The kittens' births have wider implications. Only 21 embryos were used in the Al Ain experiment. The rest were frozen and taken to the United States.

Last week, some were transferred into two females at the Living Desert Zoo near Los Angeles. It will be a month before any pregnancies can be confirmed. If kittens could be produced from the embryos in the US, it would mark a significant step towards managing captive animal populations worldwide, said Dr Swanson. Dr Swanson and Dr Herrick will return to Al Ain in June, when they will try to produce embryos using frozen sperm obtained from male sand cats in the American collection.

Their technique may eventually help to conserve wild populations. As their habitats shrink and become fragmented, it is increasingly difficult for rare wild animals to mate, said Dr Swanson. As a result, they tend towards inbreeding, losing their genetic diversity. "Certainly for the big cats, this is true," said Dr Swanson. "They live in a very fragmented environment. "One species I know of is the ocelot in south Texas. There are 80 left in the wild. Island populations are isolated and are subjected to inbreeding pressures."

Farshid Merhdadfar, the animal collection manager at Al Ain, suggested that larger carnivores, such as the Arabian leopard, the cheetah and the African wild dog, would be good candidates for the breeding process. However, Dr Swanson said, before this happened, the team needed to refine its methods and increase its success rate. "We need to make this technology efficient enough to use it as a management tool," he said.

As the kittens were vaccinated yesterday, zoo staff had their first opportunity to give them a thorough examination. "They are looking very healthy," said Mr Merhdadfar. The sand cat is the smallest cat in Arabia. The 34 at Al Ain represent almost 20 per cent of the world's captive population. The animal's numbers in the wild are thought to be dwindling, but it is not known to what extent because the cat is so shy, which also explains the relative lack of knowledge about its habits.

It is known, however, that sand cats have adapted extremely well to living in the desert. They hunt at night and can endure temperatures from -5°C to 58°C. They do not need fresh water and can get all the water they need from by eating their prey. Apart from the UAE, sand cats also live in deserts of other parts of Arabia, as well as North Africa and Central Asia.