Rotem, a rare Sand Cat at the Zoological Center Tel Aviv-Ramat Gan, recently emerged with a new litter of kittens. The fuzzy pair, born the middle of May, are not yet named, but keepers report they will both have monikers that begin with ‘R’—like mom.
After Rotem’s partner, Sela, died about two years ago, keepers at the zoo began searching for a young male Sand Cat who could take Sela's place. After intensive searching, a match was located at a zoo in Sweden, the then-3-year old Kalahari. This is the second litter for the new couple, since their introduction.
The small, stocky Sand Cat (Felis margarita) is a species of great importance. They are classified as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List. There are only 200 Sand Cats in European zoos, and many attempts are being made to breed them with the hope that it will be possible to reintroduce them back to the wild. Habitat degradation is their main threat and is caused by human settlement and activity, especially livestock grazing. Their prey-base depends on having adequate vegetation. The Sand Cat may also be killed in traps, laid out by inhabitants of oases, targeting foxes and jackals or in retaliation for killing their chickens.
The Sand Cat is small with a flat, wide head, short legs and long tail. The cat reaches 24–36 cm (9.4–14.2 in) at the shoulder and weighs 1.5–3.4 kilograms (3.3–7.5 lb). Its head and body length ranges from 39 to 52 cm (15 to 20 in), with a 23.2 to 31 cm (9.1 to 12.2 in) long tail.
Sand Cats prefer flat or undulating terrain with sparse vegetation, avoiding bare sand dunes, where there is relatively little food. They can survive in temperatures ranging from −5 °C (23 °F) to 52 °C (126 °F), retreating into burrows during extreme conditions. Although they will drink when water is available, they are able to survive for months on the water in their food.
In North Africa, they occur marginally in western Morocco, including former Sahara Occidental, in Algeria, and from the rocky deserts of eastern Egypt to the Sinai Peninsula. Sightings have been reported from Tunisia, Libya, Mali and Niger. In Mauritania, they probably occur in the Adrar Mountains and the Majabat al Koubra. Spoor have been found in Senegal, Chad, and Sudan.
In central Asia, Sand Cats occur east of the Caspian Sea throughout the Karakum Desert from the Ustyurt Plateau in the northwest to the Kopet Dag Mountains in the south extending through the Kyzylkum Desert to the Syr Darya River and the northern border to Afghanistan.
Sand Cats live solitary lives outside of the mating season. They communicate using scent and claw marks on objects in their range and by urine spraying. They make vocalizations similar to domestic cats but also make loud, high-pitched barking sounds, especially when seeking a mate
They inhabit burrows and use either abandoned fox or porcupine burrows or enlarge those dug by gerbils or other rodents. In winter, they stay in the sun during the day, but during the hot season, they are crepuscular and nocturnal.
Their way of moving is distinct: with belly to the ground, they move at a fast run punctuated with occasional leaps. They are capable of sudden bursts of speed and can sprint at speeds of 30 to 40 km (19 to 25 mi) per hour.
Small rodents are their primary prey. They can dig rapidly to extract their prey from the ground and bury prey remains in the sand for later consumption.
An average litter of three kittens is born after 59 to 66 days, typically around April or May, although in some areas, sand cats may give birth to two litters per year. The kittens weigh 39 to 80 grams (1.4 to 2.8 oz) at birth, with spotted pale yellow or reddish fur. They grow relatively rapidly, reaching three quarters of the adult size within five months of birth, and they are fully independent by the end of their first year.
The Sand Cats distribution is the border area between Israel and Jordan, and also further east. There are additional subspecies found also in North Africa and Saudi Arabia. As they used to live in Israel in the past, their importance to the Zoological Center Tel Aviv-Ramat Gan staff is even greater.