This month the spotlight falls on a feline that is almost impossible to track.
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: sand-cat.wild-cat.org
A rare Central Asian sand cat photographed by Robert Burnside during his research in Turkestan.