Reneved efforts to save the Arabian Leopard
Picture by WOOD

If it had not been for the recent media interest in efforts to save the Arabian leopard from almost certain extinction, relatively few people would even have been aware of its existence! For those people living and working in Arabia's urban centres it is sometimes difficult to imagine that many of Arabia's animals are more than a figment of biologists' imaginations. One reason for this lack of familiarity is that most of the more exotic forms are active only at night. They have also learned to be exceptionally wary of our own species, having suffered for thousands of years from man's increasingly sophisticated ability to hunt and kill wildlife.

hilst we know that virtually all of Arabia's wildlife was more abundant in the past than it is today, it is sometimes difficult to imagine an Arabia in which lions and leopards were creatures familiar to many of the peninsula's people. A text that was written in the second century BC, over two thousand years ago, by Agatharchides of Cnidos reflects the Ancient Greek's fascination with wild animals. Indeed, there was a flourishing trade in captive carnivores during the late Hellenistic period and subsequently during the height of the Roman Empire. Any lion or leopard unfortunate enough to be trapped in Arabia was quite likely to end up in a cage in Athens or Rome where they became objects of show or participants in some of the blood-spilling 'games' of the period. This interest in exotic wildlife resulted in several quite informative texts on Arabia's wildlife at this time.

The lions of Arabia", wrote Agatharchides, "are less hairy and bolder. They are uniform in colour just are those in Babylonia. The sheen of their mane is such that the hair on the back of their neck gleams like gold. ...the leopards are unlike those found in caria and Lycia. their bodies are large, and they are much better able to endure wounds and pain. In strength, moreover, they surpass the others by as much as a wild animal does a domesticated one."

But the description that most clearly evokes the abundance of Arabia's wildlife two thousand or so years ago is the following passage from the same text that is describing the Wadi al 'efal or Wadi al-Abjaz, east of the Gulf of Aqaba, in north-western Arabia:

" After these places there is a well-watered plain which , because of the streams that flow through it everywhere, grows dog's tooth grass, Lucerne and also lotus the height of a man. Because of the abundance and excellence of the pasturage it not only supports flocks and herds of all sorts in unspeakably great numbers but also wild camels and, in addition, deer and gazelles. In response to the abundance of animals which breed there, crowds of lions, wolves and leopards gather from the desert. Against these the herdsmen are compelled to fight day and night in defence of their flocks. Thus, the advantage of the country is the cause of misfortune to its inhabitants because Nature generally gives men together with good things those that are also harmful."

I doubt whether one could find a clearer enunciation of the dilemma facing Arabia's early pasturalists than this. The plentiful grazing was a boon for their flocks but they had to protect their stock from the lions, wolves and leopards that were also attracted to this rich plain. There are still places in Africa that fit the description of this ancient Arabian habitat. But only remnants of this rich natural heritage are still to be found in remote corners of the peninsula. Despite prolonged persecution both the Arabian leopard and the Arabian wolf are still clinging on to a precarious existence that depends now on our active support in ensuring their protection from hunting, the defence of their remaining habitats and on programmes of captive breeding that can provide more animals for 'wildlife reserves' where these creatures live undisturbed by man. It could easily be argued that, whilst we were not personally responsible for their demise into the jaws of extinction, we owe it to both past and future generations to try to preserve as much as possible of this unique wildlife heritage.

Arabian leopards are still living in the wild in the mountains of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Yemen and, in the north of the peninsula, in Jordan. Four were killed in the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah in the UAE in 1986 and in November 1992 a freshly killed leopard was found in the border area between UAE and Oman. Shortly afterwards another leopard was killed, and another wounded, both the victims of local farmers who believed the leopards were responsible for attacks on their goats. During the same period of time at least six caracal lynxes were killed in the UAE and it was the combination of these events that provided the stimulus for establishment of a local initiative to save Arabia's large cats. Thus was born the Arabian Leopard Trust.

This was not however the first initiative concerned with preserving the Arabian leopard. A pair of captive Arabian leopards have already successfully raised at least two litters of cubs at the Seeb Captive Breeding Centre in Oman. This project, together with some progressive conservation legislation, supported by H.M. Sultan Qaboos bin Said, has set a valuable example for a broader initiative concerning Arabia's large cats.

The UAE based ALT is an important initiative for several reasons. Not only is it professionally organised and deeply committed to conservation of the leopard, caracal lynx, wild cat and other members of Arabia's wildlife, but it is a 'grass-roots' movement that has stemmed from widespread public interest in conservation issues. The Trust's prime organiser, Dr Marijcke Jongbloed, has inspired a large number of volunteers to participate in developing the Trust's dual challenge of changing public attitudes towards wildlife while also giving urgent attention to protecting the remaining wild leopards, lynxes and other animals of southern Arabia.

On the education front a booklet for schools has been produced in which Marijcke tells the story of Hayat, the Arabian Leopard. It is an evocative tale, exciting to read and beautifully illustrated. It is a leopard's eye view of the few days prior to the fateful hunt in early 1993 that led to the death of one and injury to a second leopard in the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah. The author has succeeded in using this tragically true story to illustrate the great beauty and natural wealth of wildlife among these mountains. It is an inspirational approach that has clearly succeeded with many school children adopting a very positive stance towards conservation as a result of identifying with the story and the local terrain depicted within the book. Following the book's initial success the ALT is raising funds to publish 50,000 copies of the book for free distribution to all schools within the habitat range of Arabian leopards.

On the research and development front the ALT has already carried out research into the occurrence of large predators in the UAE. Their publicity campaign has resulted in people reporting sightings of both live and dead animals. Thus they have been able to report that : "At least three lynxes were seen alive in December 1993, while, unfortunately, 5 dead ones were reported (one road kill and 4 hunting victims) in that month. Villagers who in the past have hunted the caracal lynx in order to protect their goats have now offered to report any incidences of the lynx to the ALT which will be invited to trap the animals and remove them to a protected area or to a captive breeding centre".

The establishment of such a dedicated breeding centre, operated by the ALT, was given a significant boost recently when H.H. Sh. Dr Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi donated a two square kilometre piece of land in the foothills of the Hajar mountains as a site for the new centre.

The urgency for action on all fronts was highlighted by a letter received at the ALT from Dr Derek Harvey, a medical consultant based at the Joint Oil Companies Medical Clinic in Sana'a, Yemen, shortly before the major disturbances that occurred there in May of this year. Dr Harvey wrote to highlight the upsurge of interest in conservation issues that was occurring in Yemen and the active support of the Yemen Times newspaper in this issue. His letter also brought some devastating news: "....there is a captive leopard on display in a tiny cage, together with a hyena, in the Suq here. Legislation exists here to prohibit this, but as you may know, the political situation here is very tense at the moment, and no-one seems prepared to implement the legislation." Dr Harvey went on in his letter to discuss a Workshop that was to have been held in Sana'a on May 8th at which a Leopard session was planned. As I write this article, a military conflict is raging in the country and many people have fled to safety. In such circumstances the fate of the caged leopard can hardly be expected to receive much attention. Before this violence prevented further action Dr Harvey had an article about Arabian leopards published in the Yemen Times. With his permission we provide the following, heart-rending, extract:

"Opposite the Taj Sheba hotel, behind a cinema, there is today a Yemeni leopard in a cage less than six feet square. It is alive, and you can pay five rials to look at it. Small boys poke and throw stones at it and it cannot move far enough even to take exercise. It shares this cruel existence with a Hyena, also recently captured in Yemen, and also slowly dying of neglect, malnutrition and exploitation by unthinking human interference".

Surely we all have a responsibility to end such abuses of Arabia's wildlife? As Derek Harvey says in his article: "Have we become so cruel that we do not care about anything or anyone but ourselves and our own advantage? Do we no longer have the ability to respect and admire a beautiful animal for its own sake?"

But this is not quite the end of the story. As Dr Harvey writes: "There are still leopards in Yemen, living wild and not interfering with us. The captor of the Sana'a leopard will offer to "obtain" one for you if you say the word and pay enough. In the last 10 years, numbers of leopards have been killed in Yemen by poachers, despite the law. What is needed is the creation of national parks where wild animals, including leopard, hyena and rare gazelles, are protected, and the law is enforced. Most other countries which have a heritage of wild animals, have formed such parks successfully, and their citizens are proud of them, and drive out to watch their wildlife in its natural setting, providing variety, interest and beauty for all to share. Surely we should all press for this to happen in Yemen before it is too late, and we have nothing left to protect?"

We heartily agree.

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Arabian Wildlife. Volume 1, Number 2
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