The Arabian leopard: a charismatic species about to be lost forever?

If I told that you that there are leopards on the Arabian Peninsula, would you believe it? There is indeed a subspecies of leopards called the Arabian leopard Panthera pardus nimr whose original distribution range stretched across the Peninsula. I suspect that most people are not aware of this and so I would like to tell you about this endangered feline.

Back in the day, the Arabian leopard roamed across the entire Arabian Peninsula. But an assessment of the subspecies in 2006 lead experts to estimate the remaining Arabian leopard population to be less than 200 individuals in the wild, occupying about 10% of their original range. Today the Arabian leopard is listed as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List of Endangered species and the biggest sub-population can be found in the Omani Dhofar mountains. Smaller sub-populations are thought to persist in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. They live in some of the most arid regions which are surprisingly close to cliffs that are seasonally covered in lush vegetation thanks to the south east monsoon winds.

In 2010, after finishing my BSc in Biodiversity Conservation and Management, I travelled to Yemen at the request of the then director of a local NGO- Foundation for the Protection of the Arabian Leopard in Yemen (today known as FEW- Foundation for Endangered Wildlife in Yemen). I spent some time setting up camera traps in the South-Eastern part of the country with the aim of detecting the presence of leopards. Although I never actually saw leopards and the signs I found were rather dubious, I did get a chance to learn about the people, their culture and the landscape they share with this charismatic species. I also learnt about the place the Arabian leopard held in Yemeni society. After about four months, we finally got our first picture of an Arabian leopard in Yemen.

Today, the Arabian leopard population is in a critical state. This has now been compounded by the civil war in Yemen (See box).

We can only speculate as to the state of the wild leopard population in Yemen but what is certain is that as of today, there are 26 leopards in the Taiz Zoo. When talking about a wild population with less than 200 individuals, this fact becomes an important piece of information. Taiz Zoo is currently in the heart of the Houthi stronghold. The animals in the zoo- lions, leopards, hyenas, herbivores, birds are starving to death. Although I rarely make any noise about animal welfare issues as each situation is complex and different, with a population in such a critical state, I find it impossible to stay silent.

Animals in zoos in the midst of war have sometimes been rescued and evacuated with the help of foreign NGOs, animal welfare associations and in some cases the US Army. The zoos in Baghdad, Tripoli and more recently Gaza have received aid in the form of medicine, supplies, food and in cases where the situation was deemed too bad, the animals were evacuated. The situation in Yemen is different. It is near impossible to enter the country and evacuating the animals would require a collaboration between local and international individuals and NGOs. which is currently not a viable solution.

Urgent action is a must. Some NGOs in collaboration with interested individuals have begun drawing up plans to intervene and save as many leopards as possible from the Taiz zoo. However, for the Arabian leopards to survive this war and for their populations to recover, conservationists and NGOs will need help in the form of funding, collaboration and above all awareness among all people.

If not, this will once again be a case of ecologists recording the decline and loss of a subspecies rather than taking conservation action.

An Arabian leopard photographed in Hawf Protected of the last leopards in Yemen? © FEW Yemen

Thank you to Yasmeen Al-Eryani for contributing expertise about the political situation in Yemen.