Although sand cats (Felis margarita) were down listed from near threatened to least concern following a recent IUCN red list assessment, it was highlighted in the assessment that very limited ecological research has taken place and as a result its distribution, impact of threats and status is difficult to assess. Our study was established 2013 in the Southern Morocco, 150 km from the coast and city of Dakhla with the primary aim of improving our knowledge and understanding of sand cat ecology through the use of radio telemetry, for the first time on the African continent. Initiated by Dr. Alexander Sliwa (Curator at Koln Zoo, Germany) and Grégory Breton (then Curator at Parc des Félins, France, and now Managing Director of Panthera France), this study has been able to increase capacity by involving Moroccan collaborators from Rabat Zoo as well as local guides and drivers. The study area itself is characterised by stony and sandy Sahara ecosystems with less than 50 mm of annual rainfall and is strongly impacted by pastoralist activities and structural development with the associated dangers to all mesocarnivores (felids, canids and mustelids). We are collecting spatial data on radio-collared sand cats, which to this extent, has never been done before in the sand cat´s global distribution. Our preliminary results demonstrate that the sand cats are highly mobile and don’t use the landscape homogeneously but in an exceptional temporal and spatial pattern for a small cat species. Moreover, after remaining stationary for a certain period, they make extensive movements likely dictated by habitat condition (we recorded straight line daily covered distances of up to 21 km) and for this reason, they become difficult to track over time. Consequently, we are investigating the possibilities to develop and use new tracking systems such as GPS collars (yet unavailble, not enough miniaturised or powerful to follow such a large-range species) or new technologies (LoRa, IoT) to collect more data, but this requires extra fundings.
Our current initiatives are increasing public awareness regarding the protected status of the Barbary macaque to decrease the incidence of its capture for the pet trade or for use as photo props to attract tourists. We would like to expand our educational materials to include information about tortoises and vultures (the mountains where we are work are on the Europe-Africa bird migratory flyway. We are also facilitating visits of a health outreach team to seven villages (~2500 people) to provide health and educate village participants about basic health issues, while we conduct conservation awareness raising activities to reinforce the positive link between the conservation activities of BMAC and the local communities. We are currently repeating a Barbary macaque survey of the Rif Mountains assessing populations which have been the subject of our community conservation activities and those currently outside our area of activity.
BMAC uses an interdisciplinary perspective and an adaptive management approach to avoid negative impacts resulting from potential community misinterpretations of our activities. Our project is based around the principle of true inclusion of local people in conservation; of listening to and understanding their needs, and collaborating with them to create conservation strategies that work. Each of our initiatives encompasses carefully designed, socially and culturally appropriate projects that tackle issues in Barbary macaque conservation on a case-by-case basis depending on location and stakeholders.
Our community programs reassure local communities that we are concerned about their welfare. Access to healthcare is limited in the areas where we work and undiagnosed chronic diseases are common among vulnerable groups along with an unmet need for information about health. We would like to continue and expand our collaboration with the health outreach team to increase health outreach activities to vulnerable community members.