A Fight For Felines

Sep 08, 2018
Al Ain Zoo continues efforts to protect the Arabian sand cat

In collaboration with the Cincinnati Zoo in the US and its Center for Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW), Al Ain Zoo recently facilitated a one of-a-kind successful artificial insemination of the sand cat.

CREW scientists began studying the reproductive biology of sand cats in 2003 and, in 2010, the first attempts at in-vitro fertilization and embryo transfer were made at Al Ain Zoo. This led to the first-ever birth of sand cat kittens produced using assisted reproduction.

At the same time, samples from Al Ain Zoo's male sand cats were collected, frozen and taken to CREW's research laboratories in Cincinnati. Since then, scientists at CREW have been attempting to produce sand cats using artificial insemination, which removes the need to extract ova from female sand cats. Using sperm from one of Al Ain Zoo's males, success was finally earned in 2018 when three healthy kittens were born. Unfortunately, complications during birth meant that they did not survive.

“Despite their death, the birth of the three cats is considered a great success. Careful research and planning by CREW scientists overcame several challenges with artificial insemination that had previously hindered success. We congratulate CREW and hope for more successful results in the future,” said Omar Al-Blooshi, Director of Marketing and Corporate Communications at Al Ain Zoo.

“With the largest captive population of sand cats in the world [at] 40 cats Al Ain Zoo is making continuous efforts in the field of conservation and research of the sand cat. In collaboration with world-leading partners, our efforts have led to strategies for conserving the Arabian sand cat and in developing programmes and plans that protect the species. We carry out research to study the sand cat’s numbers and habitat in addition to carrying out genetic studies that have improved captive population management,” he added.

Al Ain Zoo launched its Arabian sand cat conservation programme in 2013 when, in collaboration with its partners, it published the Arabian Sand Cat Status Review and Conservation Strategy following an international workshop. This progressed in 2014 with the establishment of the first Arabian Population Management Plan to create a collaborative regional breeding programme for the sand cat. These two strategies were the first of their kind in the field of protecting the Arabian sand cat with local, regional and global participation.

The programmes were aimed at researching and conserving sand cats in the wild, studying the challenges which this species encounters in the wild, analysing their DNA, and studying the genetic diversity and differences between Asian, African and Arabian sand cat populations.

2017 saw the completion of one aspect of the genetic research, in partnership with Royal Zoological Society Scotland, which determined the most appropriate breeding strategies for the sand cat, in order to avoid the loss of genetic diversity and side effects that may result from inter-breeding the different subspecies. One of the most important results of the genetic testing was discovering a close genetic relationship between Arabian and Asian cats but some differences between them and African cats.

Meanwhile, the efforts of the Zoo in collaboration with the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) in sand cat field research are still ongoing. The research includes monitoring and studying the numbers of Arabian sand cats in the wild by specialised teams aiming to learn and observe their lives in natural wild habitats.
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