One of the world’s most elusive little felines has shown its furry face in the United Arab Emirates for the first time in over a decade, and the sighting has cat-lovers and conservationists very excited.

Sand cat photo environment -agency abu dhabi 2016-08-12
A sand cat caught on a camera trap. Image © Environmental Agency - Abu Dhabi

At first glance, you might mistake the Arabian sand cat for a common house cat, as they are about the same size. But look more closely and you’ll notice its unusually large pointy ears, its wide face, and the dark bands around its legs. Also called dune cats, these little felines may be much rarer than the household variety, but they are every bit as adorable.

Sand cats get their name from their habitat. They live in deserts in parts of northern Africa and the Middle East. In much of their range, they are considered “Near Threatened,” but in the Western Region of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), numbers are thought to be so low that the species is considered endangered, and the last sighting of one in that region was an unconfirmed report from 2005. Without much data on the cats in that part of the world, it’s difficult to assess their situation and help protect them.

Sand cat kitten 2013-08-12
The sand cat's cuteness may be one of its greatest assets.

Learning more about these secretive cats is not easy. In fact, it’s a bit of a nightmare trying to locate them in the wild. They’re mainly active at night, their light fur blends in perfectly with the desert sands, and they’re extremely quiet. On top of that, they close their eyes when bright light is shone on them, so eye-shine trackers battle to detect them. Even traces of them are hard to come by, since they bury their scat and are so light-footed that they don’t leave noticeable pawprints behind.

To overcome these obstacles, researchers from the Environmental Agency Abu Dhabi (Ead) and the Al Ain Zoo first had to identify the right location. They set up five motion-sensitive cameras in the Baynouna protected areas west of Abu Dhabi, where sandy plains and plenty of tasty rodents and lizards make for great sand cat habitat. And then they set out the right bait. As it turns out, studies in Saudi Arabia have found that these cats have a particular liking for chicken-flavoured cat food.

The cameras and the cat food did the trick. Between March and December of 2015, the research team captured nearly 50 images of three different cats, at least one of which was a male - the first sightings of sand cats in the Western Region of the UAE in a decade. True to their nocturnal nature, nearly all of these sightings took place between midnight and six o'clock in the morning.

These researchers and other conservationists are very excited about the new images, and not just because everyone loves pictures of cats. These photos will help scientists to determine which habitats the cats are favouring, and inform new estimates of their population size and density. This is invaluable information for future efforts to protect these animals and to establish appropriate protected regions for them.

There may be yet another benefit to the pictures. It is well-known that conservation efforts receive more attention when people are able to see the animal in danger, especially when that animal is cute and fluffy. An editorial in Abu Dhabi-based publication The National expressed the hope that “[t]he beautiful Arabian sand cat could very well be the poster animal for continued awareness campaigns about conservation efforts and our role in them.”

Sand cat kittens 2013-08-12
Keep looking cute, sand cats, it might be your best chance at survival. Image © Joachim S. Müller