The dramatic search for one of the world’s most elusive creatures: sand kittens
These zoologists have spent years looking for the mysterious feline that lives in deserts from Morocco to Israel.
Dr. Alexander Sliwa hadn’t showered in more than a week. He was cold and tired, probably because he was squatting on the roof of a moving Toyota Land Cruiser at 2 a.m., just as he’d been doing for the past nine days. Perhaps the 52-year-old German zoologist would have liked to read a book to pass the time, but his hands were occupied: he gripped a railing with one hand and shined a spotlight on the path before him with the other.
This would have been difficult under any circumstance, but the car was driving deep into the Moroccan Sahara Desert, passing acacia trees and rolling toward the dark foothills that framed the horizon.
Things you probably won’t find in the Sahara at 2 a.m.:
If a wheel drove over a patch of loose sand and the car dropped into a ditch (which happened pretty regularly), the zoologist could go flying.
Another thing you probably won’t find in the Sahara at 2 a.m.:
“It’s actually quite dangerous,” he’d tell me later.
Sliwa was willing to take the risk because he was on a treasure hunt for something much, much harder to find than gold. He was looking for a sand cat.
Sand cats are small, mysterious wild cats that live throughout Africa and Asia, from Morocco to Israel. They look like stuffed animals, with wide, childlike faces and oversized ears. Scientists don’t know much about them; research tends to go toward studying bigger cats, like lions and tigers. Sand cats are not considered endangered because, ironically, they’re too difficult to find. You need hard data to convince the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that an animal is rare, and no one has enough information on sand cats to know just how rare they are.
“According to the IUCN, they’re not threatened. I personally think they are, but I can’t prove it,” Sliwa told me.
They’re also difficult to track; it’s near impossible to sneak up on a sand cat. Comparing their hearing to ours is like comparing an iPhone X to a telegraph machine. Sand cats can hear a mouse scurrying 200 yards away. Even a Toyota Land Cruiser couldn’t cruise quietly enough to catch one unawares.
How to find sand cats:
- Drive around the desert.
- Eventually the cats will get used to the sound of your car.
- If you’re lucky, they’ll let you hang out with them.
Adult sand cats can walk more than a dozen miles each day, so finding a cat once doesn’t mean you’ll find it again. Kittens hide in shrubbery, making them even harder to spot. Though kittens have been bred in zoos, no one has ever documented a sand kitten in the wild; Sliwa and Breton fantasized about finding one for years.
During the day, sand cats don’t move much and blend in perfectly with (you guessed it) sand, which is kind of the point of being sand-colored. So you have to look for them at night. Cat eyes are like mirrors: if you shine a light on them, they shine back at you.
While Sliwa stood on top of the car looking for those glowing pinpoints in the darkness, Grégory Breton, a French zoologist with a long, dark ponytail who was working at cat conservation organization Panthera, tried to keep the driver entertained, or at least awake. It was the last night of their search. They’d seen a few cats on this trek, and the scientists were heading back to their tents to sleep for a few hours. Then they’d wake up early to go to the airport, where Sliwa would trade the solitude of the search for Berlin.
“You can be with your thoughts,” Sliwa said, reminiscing about the desert later. “You’re not stormed by millions of emails.”
Though the Sahara is painfully hot during the day, it gets cold at night. That's particularly true if you happen to be standing on a moving vehicle, which is why Sliwa wore a warm coat and beanie. He thought about another difficult car ride he’d deal with soon: his 30-mile commute through Berlin traffic to his job at the Kölner Zoo, where he’d have to answer to hundreds of people who wanted something from him and probably millions of emails ... but wait: What was that?
Sliwa saw a glow in the distance. He squinted. Something was definitely there.
“Slow down,” he told the driver.
When Breton was in college, his professor told him that he’d never find a sand cat. In 2013, after he grew up to be a wild cat researcher, he heard about sand cat sightings in Morocco. He and his colleague Sliwa, whose papers Breton had read in college, decided to conduct their own search. They needed a driver, so they hired Elhaj, who was born in Morocco but had never seen a sand cat. The men drove through the Sahara for nine nights, but they didn’t find anything.
“Elhaj thought we were crazy,” Breton said.
Then they saw a male sand cat sitting in the grass. Elhaj was so excited that he jumped out of the car, immediately scaring the animal away.
That was four years ago, and the scientists kept coming back, year after year, looking for the elusive felines. Over the years, they found 26 adult sand cats (though no kittens), and they were still looking for more on journeys like this one. Every time Breton finds one, he emails his old professor.
If you want to see a sand cat in person, you'll likely have to do it at a zoo. Their natural habitats are shrinking more and more. (Photo: Charles Barilleaux / Flickr)
The scientists drove closer to the mysterious glistening thing. It looked like a bag of chips. No, something else. A sand cat! No. Three sand cats! No. Wait.
Three sand kittens.
The scientists pulled up by the kittens and got out of the car. Breton crept closer with his camera, fighting the urge to celebrate. Any sudden movement or loud noise could spook the kittens. These next few minutes had to be handled perfectly. No one had ever documented a sand kitten in the wild before, let alone filmed one. If all went according to plan, then the scientists would make history.
A sand cat perches comfortably on a rock in the Cincinatti zoo. (Photo: David Ellis / Flickr)
Sliwa has had decades of experience researching dozens of species of wild cats. He’s fallen into ditches and had to walk back 12 miles in a hailstorm. He’s gotten caught in sand storms and scuffled with snakes. Once, while tracking collared black-footed cats in South Africa, he climbed up high and held up an antenna to try and get a radio signal. He noticed an electrical storm coming his way, lightning bolts buzzing under heavy clouds.
“I’m not a person for giving up easily, so I said, ‘Ah, it’s still far away',” he said, and kept holding up the antenna. Later, he looked through photos he took during the storm. In one, a bolt of lightning singes the air about three yards away from him. The electricity made his hair stand straight up.
“Very often you spends nights and hundreds of kilometers on top of this vehicle, and it’s cold, and it’s miserable, and you’re tired, and you’re dusty, and there’s no shower,” Sliwa said. “And then you find what you are looking for, and it’s always a hell of a kick.”
This, by the way, is not Sliwa’s job. He works at the zoo full-time. This is his “holiday.” Instead of sipping cocktails on a beach, he waits in a tent while face-peeling sandstorms rage around him.
“You see something nobody else has seen before,” he told me. “I’ll do this regardless of if I get paid for it.”
He’s been interested in cats ever since he was a boy and has become an international expert. "I think I can think like a black-footed cat,” Sliwa explained. “I put myself into the world of the cat. I try to see myself as if it were the cat looking at me.”
Sand cats can go for months without drinking water. (Photo: Tambako The Jaguar / Flickr)
Breton sunk to the ground and started filming. Three six-week-old kittens hid in tall, straw-colored grass, watching the camera lens just as intently as Breton watched them. It looked like Breton would have to film from a bit of a distance.
Then a long-legged desert rodent passed by, and one of the kittens jumped at it, towards the camera. Even after the rodent left, the kitten stayed in the limelight, unafraid of this strange ape with his odd little flashing box. Its pupils grew and shrank with each camera flash.
“It was a young man’s dream fulfilled, finally, after so many years,” remembered Sliwa.
The scientists posted the video on Sept. 18. Then National Geographic and a number of other news organizations (including ours) reposted it. A couple months ago, no human may have ever seen a sand kitten in the wild. Today, hundreds of thousands of people have seen them.
“It’s getting ridiculous,” said Sliwa. But he says the video had a serious upside. “A lot of people learned about sand cats, and that's the biggest advantage we could gain out of this.”
To the scientists, the sand cat search is about more than sand cats. These animals are a microcosm of humanity’s impact on nature. After the dinosaurs went extinct, their bones turned into oil in the Sahara. Now humans come to search for oil to power things like Toyota Land Cruisers. Sand cat territory gets smaller and more precarious. Mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and fish populations have dropped by 52 percent worldwide since 1970. Breton thinks that, as humans cut away at nature, our world, too, will shrink.
“We can’t live in subways,” said Breton. Still, I wondered what the plan was here.
“If you did get the hard data, how would that help sand cats?” I asked Sliwa. “Say you found out they were endangered, and the IUCN put them on the endangered species list. What could they do to help?”
He laughed. “Speaking from 30 years of experience in small cat conservation: it will not change a lot. People will still not pay attention,” he explained. “People are occupied with big and showy in-your-face things. They’re bombarded by information.”
I could relate. I felt pretty bombarded by computers and smartphones. I watched them arrive in my world as a kid and invited them further and further into my mental territory each year. Like the sand kittens, all I could do was stare, half hopeful and half suspicious, at these strange flashing boxes.
Endangered species lists just don’t stand out in today’s digital chaos. Luckily for sand cats, if there’s one thing that gets attention, it’s a big-eared, cotton ball fuzzy, meme-friendly kitten video.
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