September 20, 2017
It was 2 a.m. in the Moroccan Sahara, and I was heading back to camp after seven hours of driving through sand, dust, and prickly vegetation on my fifth and final expedition to document sand cats. I was chatting with our local driver, Elhaj, to keep him awake, while my colleague Alexander Sliwa spent a few more minutes squatting on the roof of our Toyota Land Cruiser shining spot lamps into the bushes, close to giving up.
Then, it happened. Three pairs of eyes gleamed back at Alexander through the darkness about 4 kilometers from our campsite. They belonged to young sand cats, yellowish, small wild cats with broader faces and larger ears than domestic cats.
Finding sand cats (Felis margarita) in their natural range (northern Africa, across the Middle East, and southwest and central Asia) is difficult. They barely leave any visible pugmarks, they don’t leave behind remains of their prey, and their vocalizations are quiet. They move stealthily at dusk, night, and dawn, they’re good at hiding, and their fur provides perfect camouflage when they want to vanish from observers and threats. But they don’t run away.
Finding these kittens was astonishing. We spent an hour taking pictures and videos and setting up camera traps in the hopes of recording some natural behavior once we left. Based on our experience with sand cat litters in captivity, we estimate they were six to eight weeks old—too small for collaring. We believe this was the first time researchers ever documented wild sand cat kittens in their African range.
As we were carefully leaving the kittens, making sure we didn’t startle them, the team spotted and radio-collared an adult female that was nervously roaming around during our interaction. She could be the kittens’ mother. If we collect footage of her and follow her for a long period, we can gather data on the natural reproduction cycles and offspring dispersal of this species in the wild—all topics never before documented.
It was a unique and exciting expedition, and what we find next can be groundbreaking.
My sand cat expeditions in the Sahara started in 2013, when Alexander—the world’s leading specialist in black-footed cats, heading a 25-year study on this species in South Africa—and I discovered that more sand cat sightings were being reported in Morocco. We decided to travel there and try to spot some cats ourselves. For our first adventure, we found Elhaj, a Sahrawi driver who was born in the desert and knows it very well. Even though he had never seen a sand cat before, he agreed to transport us.
Nine days into that expedition, we began to feel frustrated, and Elhaj thought we were crazy. Then, at the end of the trip, there they were: three sand cats. When we saw the first, Elhaj was so excited that he went nuts and ran out of his vehicle. The cat, startled, vanished almost immediately into the darkness, and we lost his tracks.
This sighting inspired us to partner with Rabat Zoo and obtain a permit from the High Commission for Water and Forests and the Fight Against Desertification of the Kingdom of Morocco to catch and collar them. We would be the first researchers to take this step. Across its range, the sand cat was previously scantly studied.
To date, we’ve spotted 29 different sand cats, radio-collared 13 of them, and collected some surprising data. For instance, sand cats are traveling more than we thought and more than what’s been recovered for any other small cats. But we still don’t know why—yet. Additionally, it seems this desert cat is living in select parts of the desert—and if the low density is confirmed over time, the species may not be as frequent as believed, at least in this region.
Ours has been the most extensive research on this species, and it will surely help to protect it.
Tracking sand cats is fun, but demanding because of the tough landscape and high temperatures. A typical day in the field involves waking up at 8 a.m., recording the daytime resting locations of the collared cats when we can find them, napping in the afternoon after a meal cooked and eaten in the shade of rare acacia trees or in one of our tents, and setting out again between sunset and sunrise. This is when sand cats are active and the best period to collect their movement data and observe their behaviors.
There’s no electricity and no bathrooms. When sandstorms happen, we have to stow our gear away—and retreat to our tent or vehicle to protect our faces, unless we’re in the mood for a free peeling.
Grégory Breton joined Panthera in April 2017 after serving France’s famed Parc des Félins as curator and assistant director for 14 years. At the zoo, Grégory supervised the care and management of 26 wild cat species and oversaw its breeding program that successfully supplied over 600 captive-bred animals to other collections around the world. Grégory also coordinated the International and European captive sand cat breeding programs on behalf of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria.