Con­ser­va­tion re­port

This month the spot­light falls on a fe­line that is al­most im­pos­si­ble to track.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents -

The elu­sive Cen­tral Asian sand cat

Where does it live?

Sand cats live in the desert belts stretch­ing from north Africa, through the Mid­dle East, and up into cen­tral Asia. There are four known sub­species of which the cen­tral Asian or Turkestan sand cat is one. It lives in the Kyzylkum Desert in Uzbek­istan.

Why is it so unique?

It’s the only cat to live ex­clu­sively in desert habi­tats and so has a num­ber of dis­tinct, spe­cialised fea­tures. It doesn’t re­ally need to drink and gets most of its mois­ture from its food sources; mainly ro­dents and rep­tiles. It has a flat, round head with very broad ears, short legs and the un­der­sides of its paws are com­pletely cov­ered in fur.

Why is it so elu­sive?

Its unusual paws, which are thought to help it dig rapidly for prey, leave non­de­script cir­cu­lar marks in the sand, which make it al­most im­pos­si­ble to track. It’s shy, noc­tur­nal, lives in bur­rows and, when it does come out, it’s per­fectly cam­ou­flaged. If star­tled, an adult will of­ten run away then stop, sit and blend in with the back­ground.

How en­dan­gered is it?

Glob­ally the species is of ‘least con­cern’ but the cen­tral Asian sub­species is thought ex­cep­tion­ally rare. They don’t have a Red List in Uzbek­istan, so it has been added to the Red Data book, a gov­ern­ment list of en­dan­gered an­i­mals that gives them le­gal pro­tec­tion.

What are the main threats?

Peo­ple. Habi­tat is be­com­ing frag­mented by the oil and gas in­dus­try. The land is also used by sheep herders. Re­cently a shep­herd found a dead lamb and blamed sand cats. He de­stroyed the kit­tens in a nearby den, but as adults weigh about 2kg it’s un­likely they were to blame.

What can be done to help it?

Left alone they would prob­a­bly be fine, so it’s about ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple not to per­se­cute them. Sci­en­tif­i­cally, lit­tle is known about this amaz­ing an­i­mal so base­line pop­u­la­tion sur­veys are needed.

ROBERT J BURNSIDE is a con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of East Anglia.

FIND OUT MORE The Sand Cat Work­ing Group:

A rare Cen­tral Asian sand cat pho­tographed by Robert Burnside dur­ing his re­search in Turkestan.

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