The Arabian leopard

The Arabian leopard is native to the Arabian Peninsula, but fewer than 200 animals live in the wild. Fortunately, the Arabian Wildlife Centre has been breeding it for more than a decade in order to try to save this beautiful animal from extinction.

The geographic range of the Arabian leopard is generally limited to the Arabian Peninsula, including Egypt’s Sinai Mountains. It once flourished in the northern part of the Median Mountains, the Sarawat Mountains, in the northern Yemen highlands, in the mountains of Ras al-Khaimah, in the eastern region of the United Arab Emirates, and in the Jabal Samhan and Dhofar mountains in Oman. A very small population used to inhabit Israel’s Negev desert.

The Arabian leopard is the smallest of all the nine sub-species of leopard. Living in a restricted area in small groups, the risk of extinction due to inbreeding is also higher than normal.

The Arabian Wildlife Centre, based in the United Arab Emirates, is dedicated to the preservation of wildlife indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula. It raises awareness among the local population about conserving the flora and fauna in a region of varied terrains: mountainous areas, mangroves, coastal regions and wadis.

Although there have been no sightings of the Arabian leopard for 15 years in the United Arab Emirates, the known populations are in neighbouring Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The Arabian Wildlife Centre is collaborating with institutions in all three countries.

Protecting areas of the desert from the encroaching modern world is just one step in a long process when it comes to saving the Arabian leopard. While this graceful and shy creature is doing well in breeding centres, releasing animals bred in captivity into the wild is fraught with difficulties and success is by no means assured.

After famously rearing the lioness Elsa and her cubs, Joy Adamson turned her attention to leopards. She proved that it was possible to tame them, although others are more wary. Novelist and environmental activist Peter Matthiessen wrote evocatively of The Snow Leopard (1978), but before doing so he spent time in Africa where he became fascinated by the big cats. In The Tree Where Man Was Born (1972) he writes perceptively (and poetically) of feline psychology:

“The leopard has the grace of complete awareness, with all its tensions in its pointed eyes. The lion’s gaze is merely baleful; that of the leopard is malevolent, a distillation of the trapped fear that is true savagery… Under a whistling thorn the leopard lay, gold coat on fire in the sinking sun, as if imagining that so long as it lay still it was unseen.”

The Arabian leopard is not about to change its spots. But let’s hope it survives long enough for us to see that it kept them.

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