The Leopards of Arabia
By: Christian Jimenez/Arab America Contributing Writer
Throughout millennia, humanity has always had conflict and fascination with the dominant predator on Earth – the big cat. In particular, there is the magnificent leopard which is one of the fiercest predators on Earth that is renowned for its beauty and strength. Today, when most people think of leopards, they think of them as only endemic to Africa and South Asia. However, did you know that leopards also live in the Arabian Peninsula?
Characteristics and Behavior
The Arabian Leopard is one of the smallest subspecies of leopard in the world compared to other subspecies in Africa, Iran, and India. The size of the Arabian Leopard ranges from a length of 182-203 centimeters , a weight of 30 kilograms for males, a length of 160-192 centimeters, and a weight of 20 kilograms for females. Like any other leopard, the Arabian Leopard hunts at nighttime where they have excellent night vision. During hunting, they target prey such as the Arabian Tahr, Arabian gazelle, the Nubian Ibex, rock hyraxes, hares, rodents, other small to medium sized mammals, and even a variety of insects on occasion. The Arabian leopard is no doubt the dominant and apex predator in the lands of Arabia since there is no larger cat or predator in the same region. Once a leopard catches their prey it will leave its leftovers in caves, which is unlike those of African Leopards who leave their food in trees. Another important aspect that we need to discuss about Leopards is how they interact with other Arabian Leopards.
Arabian Leopards, just like other leopards, are mostly solitary animals and only interact with each other when they mate or when a female leopard has to take care of her cubs, where they typically have a litter of around three to four. These cubs will be taken care of by their mother until they are around two years old when they find their own territory and live out their own solitary lifestyles according to tigertribe.net. Leopards in general spend most of their lives by themselves, unlike other big cats like lions who are in packs.
Along with the lifestyle and characteristics of them, did you also know that there is archeology connected to them as well. The most prominent image is that of rock paintings depicting various animals in Arabia. Some of these images include hunting scenes, and in these hunting scenes there are depictions of what is assumed to be the Arabian Leopard. Many paintings of these amazing leopards are on cliffs and caves during the time of the Neolithic Age. One painting in particular includes that of Shuwaymis West where there is a scene of a hunting party of dogs. It also depicts a leopard up on the cliff with a gazelle near the bottom of the painting, according to saudi-archeology.com. This piece shows that humanity has been connected with these Arabian Leopards since at least the Neolithic Age, and no doubt earlier than that when the first humans arrived in Arabia.
Arabian Leopard Distribution Around the World
Today most of these Arabian Leopards live in the rugged mountains of the Arabian Peninsula where there is more rainfall and more prey, while a few leopards live at lower ranges where they have to patrol much larger territories than those in the mountains. Those areas have more sparse and arid conditions at the lower and flatter elevations with less of a diverse spread of prey and water, according to tigertribe.net.
The Arabian subspecies of leopard can be a rare sight in Arabia since they live in a limited number of habitats mostly in the highlands and mountains of Arabia. Their subpopulations can be found in the Hajjah and Al Mahrah governorate in Yemen, the Dhofar region in Oman, the Judean Desert, and the Negev uplands according to saudi-archeology.com, as well as other subpopulations in the gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, according to tigertribe.net.
There is still a lot that we don’t know about these cats since they are rare and there hasn’t been much footage of them or how they behave. One of the reasons for their rarity and lack of footage is that there are not many of them and their populations have been declining for quite some time.
Currently, the Arabian Leopard is on the endangered species list where the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has recorded them as critically endangered. This rating is the worst that a wild animal can receive, and it means that serious dialogue is necessary to prevent them from becoming extinct in the wild. The Arabian subspecies has had this rating since 1996, which means that the decline in the population has been a concern to the world in terms of conservation for a while. There are around 200-250 leopards from their species since the year 2006, with the largest subpopulation of Arabian Leopards in the Dhofar Mountains of Oman where there is an estimated population of around 44-58 wild leopards left in the country, according to newscientist.com.
Historically, they used to have a much larger range across the Arabian Peninsula as well as in the wider Middle East. The major factors for their decline has been habitat loss, the loss of their prey, and increasing contact with humans. The loss of the leopard’s traditional prey items, and the appearance of people moving into their habitats to collect frankincense (a type of perfume,) has caused the leopards to move closer to human population settlements. They then will target the domestic animals herded by people such as camels and goats, and these attacks in turn motivate people to kill the leopard in order to protect their animals, or in retaliation for the ones they already killed.
Also, most of their historical habitat has been lost to processes such as urbanization, desertification, and overgrazing. Additionally, many people have also killed Arabian Leopards in order to obtain their skins or the other valuable parts of the animal. All of these factors combined, along with decreased genetic diversity due to inbreeding, poses serious risk of extinction for these big cats in the near future.
Efforts To Save the Leopard
Despite their loss in numbers, there have been conservation efforts underway to save the leopards. One such conservation effort has been the government of Oman’s Office for Conservation of the Environment, where they have offered herders compensation for the camels that they lost due to leopards. This helps, as these herders will get money from Oman’s government rather than killing the leopard in retaliation. Another conservation effort has been that of the United Arab Emirates, where they have a captive breeding program for the leopards in case all of the remaining wild leopards become extinct. There have also been Arabian Leopard wildlife sanctuaries, such as the one on the Musandam Peninsula in Oman, according to worldwildlife.org, and in Al-’Ula in Saudi Arabia where there is a plan to reintroduce them into the wildlife. Meanwhile in Yemen, the leopards have been in danger due to the ongoing civil war in that country. Between 2015, and 2016, according to earthtouchnews.com, five leopards being shot. It is likely that the conservation efforts there won’t happen anytime soon due to this civil war and the human suffering that has gone along with it. However, with these conservation efforts the Arabian Leopard can come back, and hopefully due to ideas such as compensation, nature reserves, and more awareness about the leopard such as with Oman’s Leopard Project, humans and leopards in this part of the world can coexist in the future. If we succeed, then one of those most iconic predators in the region will be preserved and will be seen by our descendants for many more millennia to come.
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