Earlier this week, a stunningly beautiful and extremely rare male sand cat landed at the Ben-Gurion International Airport, after roughly a day's flying time from Sweden.
The pure sand cat, or Felis margarita, is in extreme danger of extinction. Originally endemic to Israel and Jordan, this small, chunky wildcat is now totally extinct in the Middle East, though some members of a sub-species reportedly still prowl the deserts of Saudi Arabia, North Africa and central Asia.
Of the Israeli sand cat, only 200 specimens remain in European zoos and some 800 in North American zoos.
The absurdity that Israel has to import a sand cat endemic to Israel from Sweden (flying on Turkish Airlines, via Istanbul) showcases the sad plight of our planet: many experts have been warning that with our effect on the environment, we are approaching a sixth great extinction event.
The Ramat Gan Safari Park used to have a pair of sand cats, a female named Rotem (which means "retama plant" and is a very popular unisex name in Israel) and male named Sela ("boulder" – this name is reserved for men. The zoo sometimes evinces a weakness for contemporary Israeli names.)
The pair mated twice and had kittens that did beautifully, and were donated to other zoos. Then a year and a half ago, Sela died, and the Safari cast out its net to find her a new mate.
Finding a new mate for Rotem was no trivial matter, explains Sagit Horowitz, spokeswoman of the Ramat Gan Safari Park. There are just so few out there.
Both the Safari and the Parken Zoo of Sweden are collaborators in a broad effort to conserve endangered species, says Horowitz.
The project coordinator made the match of sand cat kittens born in Parken and the lonely Israeli cat, which being of two very different group, would not be too genetically similar.
All that remained was to wait for the male kitten to grow up and fly him over.
The newcomer came with the name Kalahari because the Swedish zoo from which he comes names its sand cats after deserts, which is their habitat – in fact the sand cat is the only feline to prefer the desert life. At first Rotem and Kalahari will be kept separate by a barrier: once they seem to have accepted each other's existence, they will be put together.
Their genetic distance is crucial, though over time, it may not help. The less genetic diversity a population has, in theory, the more liable subsequent generations are to suffer from genetic problems: a notorious example is retardation in certain inbred populations. If two persons in a population of 100,000 have a "bad" recessive gene, their chances of meeting and breeding, and of having children suffering from the condition, are remote; if the population consists of 200, the chances of having nonviable offspring are a lot higher.
By the way, in case this story isn't absurd enough, Rotem herself was born in Germany and Sela, of blessed memory, had been born in Germany. Nobody remembers which airline flew them over.
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