By Cheyenne Macdonald
Researchers tracking wild North African sand cats spotted a litter on April 26.
At the time, they estimated the three kittens to be about 6-8 weeks old.
The researchers say this is the first ever footage of sand cat kittens in the wild.
They’ve spent the last four years extensively tracking and documenting Africa’s elusive sand cats – but, it was in the middle of the night on the last night of their expedition when researchers made an ‘astonishing’ discovery.
In what’s thought to be the first-ever footage of sand cat kittens in the wild, researchers have recorded three young cats in their natural range, each estimated to be just six to eight weeks old at the time they were spotted.
These cats are known for their remarkable abilities to evade detection, traveling under the cover of darkness and never leaving behind traces of their kill.
THE SAND CAT
The sand cat (Felis margarita) can be found throughout northern Africa, the Middle East, and southwest and central Asia, according to Grégory Breton, Managing Director at Panthera France.
These stealthy felines are difficult to spot – they travel at dusk, night, and dawn, and camouflage perfectly with their environment.
Their fur is a sandy color, with black rings on the front legs.
The cats are also known to have quiet vocalizations, and are experts at hiding.
Even when hunting, they don’t leave behind traces of their prey, according to the researcher.
While sand cats were once listed as Near Threatened, but have since been downlisted to Least Concern.
The team, led by biologists Dr Alexander Sliwa & Grégory Breton, spotted three pairs of eyes glowing in the darkness as they drove back to camp on April 26.
The site was roughly 4 kilometers (4.5 miles) from their camp in the Moroccan Sahara – but, after discovering the rare kittens at 1:48 a.m., the researchers spent the next hour capturing photos and videos of the litter, and setting up camera traps.
‘This is likely the first sighting of sand cat kittens in the Sahara,’ the team says.
Three kittens were found hiding beneath a tuft of perennial grass.
As they filmed the litter, the team also spotted and radio-collared an adult female, who was ‘nervously roaming’ nearby.
This may have been the kittens’ mother, they say.
In the remarkable footage of the encounter, the adorable kittens can be seen up-close, revealing a detailed look at their tiny noses, wide green eyes, and enormous ears.
And, the kittens appear fearless despite suddenly being watched; at one point in the footage, one brave kitten can even be seen emerging from the bush as it notices an unsuspecting jerboa passing by.