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Saving the Arabian Leopard: Improving the Gulf States’ Environmental Policies

The Arabian leopard, or Panthera pardus nimr, is a leopard subspecies native to the Arabian Peninsula, considered the smallest and rarest of the leopard subspecies. The leopards are distinguished by their small size; the largest among them weigh less than 30 kilograms (66 pounds), less than half of their African and Asian counterparts. Unfortunately, the Arabian leopard is considered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to be critically endangered; due to widespread loss of their natural habitat and illegal hunting, fewer than 200 animals remain in the wild and are scattered across Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen.

On the Brink of Extinction

Right now it is impossible to estimate with much accuracy how many of the leopards remain in the wild. Because past statistics on leopard populations do not exist, modern researchers cannot reconstruct the historical distribution and status of the animal with sufficient detail. Prof. Awadh Al-Johany from the Zoology Department at Saudi Arabia-based King Saud University claimed that the Arabian leopard historically covered the area from Aqaba—just north of Saudi Arabia—to the Madian, Hijaz, and Sarawat mountain ranges in the south. While Arabian leopards appear to have disappeared in the Madian mountains (northwest of the Arabian Peninsula,) they are still found in small areas in the Hijaz and Sarawat ranges, as well as in El-ward, Aglab, the Shaiboob mountains, and Wadi Amodan in the west and south of Al-Ula, according to Professor Al-Johany’s research.

Zara McDonald, CEO of the Felidae Conservation Fund, a California-based nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving wild cats and their habitats, disagreed with this assessment. She argued that the population density is unknown—meaning that the stated population of 200 could vastly overestimate the number of Arabian leopards in the wild. McDonald noted that Oman is the only nation where the leopards have been confirmed to live independent of human protection, although populations could still exist in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Since 1970, however, the leopard’s “occupied range has contracted from ~888,300 km2 to 17,400 km2,” according to expert researcher Hadi Al Hikmani.

Emerging Initiatives to Save the Arabian leopard

In recent years, Gulf Arab governments have launched numerous initiatives to save the remaining leopards. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have established two major captive breeding programs: the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife, located in Sharjah in the UAE, and the Prince Saud Al-Faisal Wildlife Research Centre [PSFWRC) in Saudi Arabia’s Taif, operated under the management of the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU). A July 2017 royal decree established the RCU to preserve and develop AlUla, a natural and cultural site in northwestern Saudi Arabia, which has lately emerged as one of the kingdom’s top tourist destinations.

The RCU launched the Global Fund to protect the Arabian leopard from extinction in the Sharaan Nature Reserve, expanding the park’s borders and setting an ambitious goal to release leopards back into the wild. To prepare for the moment Arabian leopard populations would be reintroduced, the RCU announced that it planned to rewild 1,500 km2 of mountains and desert in northwest Saudi Arabia and launch multiple breeding programs to provide a viable stock of animals.

According to reports, the RCU has also committed $20 million to leopard conservation in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and around the world over the next decade. The commission has teamed up with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and U.S.-based big cat conservation organization Panthera in order to further develop the strategy of preserving this highly endangered animal. Together, the three organizations created the National Action Plan for the Conservation of Arabian Leopards. Finally, to raise public awareness of their importance and endangered status, Saudi Arabia declared February 10th as Arabian Leopard Day.

Despite these initiatives and the veritable progress they have made, the sustainable preservation of Arabian leopards will remain an extremely difficult task. It will require collaboration and cooperation from multiple governmental bodies and non-governmental organizations, as well as  a solid plan to protect the cats’ rapidly shrinking habitat.

Setting Space Aside

At the time of Al-Johany’s 2007 article, no protected areas (PA) had been established for Arabian leopards in their distribution range, although the Saudi National Center for Wildlife Development (NCWD) was established in 1986 and declared many PAs for other species. These PAs now cover roughly 4 percent of the kingdom’s total area. Until recently, the only PA designated for Arabian leopards was Jabal Shada in Saudi Arabia’s southern region, consisting of only 70km2 of reserved space within a very densely populated area. This area is far too small for the Arabian leopard, which can cover 25 km2 in one night searching for prey. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the creation of a second protected area in 2018, covering the region in the northwest of the Kingdom, west of Al-Ula, which contains part of the historical distribution range of the leopards. As there are not many leopards left in the wild, Al-Johany fears that absent additional measures to conserve the small number left, the species may be lost forever.

In spite of these ongoing initiatives to raise awareness about the plight of Arabian leopards and commendable efforts to establish PAs, McDonald and Al-Johany explained that years of unregulated hunting have depleted the ibex and gazelle populations—the two most critical sources of prey for the leopard. This factor, perhaps more than any other, has caused the rapid decline in leopard population. Speaking to Gulf International Forum, McDonald explained that while Arabian leopards also feed on smaller prey, the ecosystem remains unbalanced due to overhunting, habitat loss, fragmentation, and retaliatory killings. These factors continue to drive  the impending extinction of many wild cat species across the world, and the Arabian leopard is no exception.

For this reason, additional economic or residential developments within existing leopard habitats will all but ensure their extinction in the near future. In McDonald’s opinion, tourism policies must therefore incorporate protective protocols for leopard populations. To this end, the leopards’ crucial habitats must remain separate from new construction projects or industrial zones.  McDonald writes: “Once the population rebounds…tourism can bring funding to support leopards but still must leave the habitat undisturbed for the leopards as otherwise leopards will be lost.” Saudi Arabia appears to be pursuing this course. Al-Johany said that “the…urbanization and touristic expansion in Al-Ula does not cause any obstacle to plans to preserve leopards’ natural habitat, as there are no leopards in Al-Ula proper, where the development is going on.”

Although Saudi Arabia has undertaken a robust effort to preserve the remaining leopard population within its borders, Oman remains the only country with a verifiable population living in the wild. Therefore, McDonald thinks that Muscat may take a leading role in their protection. To do this, the Omani government should survey these animals, using cameras and scat or hair collection to learn more about the population and the threats they face. This would, of course, require a dedicated and prolonged study, as well as the inclusion of other regional and international partners.

Even so, these preservation efforts face another significant challenge: the genetic depletion of the small isolated populations living around the Arabian Peninsula. According to Al Hikmani’s doctoral thesis, an assessment of genetic diversity using a suite of microsatellite markers indicated that the Arabian leopard population is genetically impoverished in comparison to other leopard subspecies. However, Al Hikmani reveals that “high levels of genetic diversity and unique alleles were discovered in wild and captive Arabian leopards of Yemeni origin, compared to the wild leopards of the Dhofar mountains of Oman, an area considered to be their last stronghold.” Therefore, conservation management strategies should “include a rescue via introgression of Yemeni genes to restore the genetic diversity of impoverished populations and enhance the overall evolutionary potential of the Arabian leopard.” However, McDonald remains wary of this course of action, arguing that breeding should be a last resort if new DNA must be introduced into the population.

There is a second pressing reason to evacuate Yemeni leopards from their historical habitats: the country’s ongoing war and ever-deteriorating security situation. The conflict threatens to wreak further ecological devastation upon any Arabian leopards in the country. According to McDonald, very few, if any, of Yemen’s leopards have survived the conflict.

Improved Law Enforcement

The rapid decline in Arabian leopard populations has been abetted by weak legislative efforts and poor law enforcement practices across the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. It is clear that key decision-makers lack the commitment or resolve to conserve leopard populations. While the RCU has initiated some programs, trained a ranger force, and attempted to raise awareness among local communities, Al-Johany noted that the general awareness of the value of wildlife in general and endangered species such as leopards, cheetahs, and other valuable wildlife are weak. Further reinforcement at the local level is required to instill a respect for these creatures. McDonald emphasized that because it takes time for local residents to learn and understand the value of the wildlife, it is essential that such programs are proactive, consistent, and ongoing. Such an approach, she said, must include education about the important role of predators in balancing the ecosystem, as well as the education of farmers and ranchers on how to prevent livestock loss and how to protect their herds from predators without resorting to retaliatory killings.

Ultimately, saving the Arabian leopard will prove to be a significant challenge—not least because its habitat is spread over three countries, one of which is embroiled in a fierce civil war. Even if implemented effectively, top-down measures can only go so far to encourage conservation and beneficial practices at the local level; for preservation efforts to succeed, local communities must have a stake in them and understand the importance of their participation. Whether these efforts will succeed remains uncertain, but the raft of new legislation in Saudi Arabia and Oman that carves out safe habitats and legal protections for the leopards is reason to hope.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Stasa Salacanin is a Europe-based journalist and analyst who writes for several newspapers and think tanks across the Middle East and the U.S. He has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, terrorism, and defense.

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