The WildGenes conservation genetic laboratory at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) is assisting Al Ain Zoo, Abu Dhabi UAE, to launch a flagship conservation breeding and research programme for this species. The DNA project undertaken by WildGenes will provide the vital information needed in order to design and implement the project.
Al Ain Zoo have the largest known captive population of Arabian sand cats in the world, however little is understood about their genetics or indeed the species in general. The RZSS WildGenes lab will use blood samples from the cats at Al Ain Zoo to extract their DNA and develop the genetic markers suitable for parentage testing and analysing genetic diversity. These tools will be used help establish a captive breeding programme for the sand cat and to compare the relatedness of the cats at Al Ain with those from other captive populations that could contribute to the breeding programme.
The genetic tools WildGenes are developing will also be used for the monitoring of wild populations of this species in Abu Dhabi via the analysis of collected faecal samples; this information will help to estimate the range and population size of the species in the wild.
It is hoped that this project will serve as a catalyst for conservation efforts in the region, with exhibits at the Zoo acting as a platform for education alongside the conservation programme. The programme aims to coordinate conservation efforts with local and regional partners to develop a cohesive population management for the Arabian sand cat in Arabia.
The sand cat lives deep in the deserts of Arabia, North Africa and Central Asia and can survive for months without water. Thick fur protects its paws from the baking ground and it makes burrows in the sand to cope with the extremes of midday and night-time temperatures. It is the only species of cat to inhabit true desert.
Degradation of the desert environment had led to the decline in many species including the sand cat. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species list the cat as Near Threatened, however the threat to many local populations in Arabia is likely to be much higher. In fact the Arabian sand cat is classified as Endangered in the regional IUCN Red Lists for the UAE, with only four reliable sightings since 1995. Due to the elusive nature of this species and due to the extreme environments it inhabits, it is very hard to estimate exactly how many cats are left in the wild and to what extent they are declining.
Dr Helen Senn, Research Scientist at the RZSS WildGenes Laboratory, comments:
“This is an important step in conserving the Arabian sand cat. Desert environments tend to be overlooked in terms of conservation work and many species are extinct or on the brink of extinction. Although the sand cat is classed as Near Threatened as a whole, the threat to local populations can be much greater. It is hoped that the establishment of this captive breeding programme and the information gathered from this study will help to improve the conservation prospects of this species.
“This genetic work performed by RZSS WildGenes will support the design of a breeding program that will help maintain vital genetic diversity within the captive population, ensuring that it has the best chance of long-term survival if eventually reintroduced. Wild monitoring will also provide us with much needed background data about what this elusive species gets up to out in the desert”.
Muna al Dhaheri, Acting Chief of Conservation and Education for Al Ain Zoo, says: “Al Ain Zoo’s partnership with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s WildGenes Lab is in line with our continued and active commitment to conserve arid wildlife species, a key priority for the Abu Dhabi Emirate. The DNA analysis project will help us to better understand this elusive species, which will serve as a major contribution to conservation efforts, while also establishing a foundation for potential reintroduction and long-term sustainability.” RZSS WildGenes are also actively involved with work on a number of other desert species - the addax, Scimitar-horned oryx and dama gazelle - for Al Ain Zoo. Recently the WildGenes lab has taken the lead in the conservation genetic management of Arabian oryx, which have been the subject of long term conservation efforts and several reintroductions over the past 30 years. The use of DNA data to support the controlled release of these animals will hopefully improve survivorship and longevity in the reintroduced population.