Field technician Josh van der Ploeg records his adventures with Dr. Gareth Mann and the rest of his team in their quest to find out more about the elusive- and Critically Endangered- Arabian Leopard. Follow his journey through this unique environment in Saudi Arabia and learn what it takes to save a species.
“Hmmm, I think it’s somewhere up there.”
That’s Dr. Gareth Mann, Project Coordinator of Panthera’s Arabian Leopard Initiative, and he’s referring to the location of our next site where we will place one of Panthera’s specially designed camera traps.
It is a phrase that one gets accustomed to hearing when hiking around the Sarawat mountain range in Saudi Arabia. We are following a combination of wadis (seasonal riverbeds) and animal trails to find the location which Gareth has painstakingly selected. Usually, this is on a trail that cuts across a meandering wadi or snakes its way up and over a saddle between two jagged mountain peaks.
“If there are leopards here,” Gareth remarks, “that will be a spot which they use, and a good location to set up our cameras.”
The mountain ranges which run along the Arabian Peninsula, parallel to the Red Sea, are a historical home range of the critically endangered Arabian Leopard - the main subject of Panthera’s work here - but they are also home to a plethora of other interesting animals such as the Striped Hyena, Arabian Wolf, Caracal, Blanford’s Fox and Porcupine. Many of these animals avoid the heat of the midday sun, preferring to become active as the day cools down. They also avoid contact with humans so finding evidence of them without carefully placed camera traps would be almost impossible.
From the coastal plain the Sarawat mountains rise up to over 12,000 feet in some places, and the relatively inaccessible rocky slopes of the escarpment provide a potential haven for Arabian Leopards. Further inland, the powers of water and time have done their work by incising these sharp river valleys whose foliated beds and steep mountain slopes have long been a stronghold for local people as well as the diverse fauna and flora of Saudi Arabia.
It is here, along the slopes of the escarpment and the winding wadis of the interior, that Gareth and the rest of us hike each day to deploy the trail cameras, hoping to be the first to capture an image of an Arabian Leopard in Saudi Arabia since 2014.
Prior to joining the Panthera team as a Field Technician for this project, I worked as a guide in the Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve, South Africa. It is an area renowned for its thriving leopard population, and for producing incredible sightings of these usually elusive cats. However, the skills learned in tracking leopards in the Sabi Sands are very different from those required to find an Arabian Leopard out here.
Hiking in these arid environments is tricky. Temperatures regularly reach over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the ground is uneven, the wadis are rocky, and the slopes are full of unstable scree which makes progress slow. Instead of bouncing around in a safari vehicle, we are hiking up to 20 miles a day and setting up multiple camera traps in locations that we hope will give us the best chance of photographing an Arabian Leopard.
Gareth is somewhat of an arid zone leopard specialist. Having completed his Ph.D. in 2014 whilst studying the population of Cape Leopards in the Little Karoo region of South Africa, he is now coordinating Panthera’s Arabian Leopard Initiative – an exciting new project in collaboration with the Royal Commission for AlUla in Saudi Arabia.
The Little Karoo and the mountainous regions of the Arabian Peninsula bear a remarkable resemblance to one another. They are dry, semi-arid landscapes complete with dramatic mountain ranges, seasonal river beds, and erratic grass.
“Studying leopards in the Little Karoo presents similar challenges [to Saudi Arabia], in terms of them having large spatial requirements, roaming large areas, coming into contact and potential conflict with local farmers, and also there is not much known about them,” he says.
Due to the nature of arid ecosystems, there is a lower abundance of prey species, and leopards have to ensure that they have large enough home ranges to encompass plenty of water points and hunting grounds. This means that an individual leopard may venture past a point in its territory only once or twice in a month, making it even more difficult to capture an image of one, and challenging to gauge the health of the population – if there is one.
Away from the strenuous days spent hiking in the mountains, Gareth gives me a more in-depth look into the purpose of Panthera and RCU’s collaborative conservation work here in Saudi Arabia.
“Our work is about a lot more than cats; it’s about using cats as a tool for conservation of other species and landscapes, particularly the less charismatic species that wouldn’t draw the attention that they so richly deserve. Leopards in arid areas tend to have very large home ranges. So, if you’re conserving leopards in an arid desert landscape, you are also conserving other species and the ecosystem in which they occur," he says.
Leopards are the most adaptable of the big cats; occurring in a wide range of habitats and environments subject to various pressures, so they act as a useful indicator of the health of any ecosystem. They are also what conservation scientists refer to as an “Umbrella Species”. This means that if we work to conserve leopards, there are a host of other species within the ecosystems that will also profit.
Panthera’s long-term vision for the Arabian Leopard Initiative is to ensure that there is a thriving, self-sustaining leopard population.
“… at least one population, maybe more,” Gareth says, “Ideally connected to the other leopard populations in Arabia. We know there are leopards in Oman, we hope that there are leopards in Yemen, and ideally, we would like to see connectivity re-established across the entire historical Arabian Leopard range throughout the Arabian Peninsula.”
Securing a future for the Arabian Leopard in Saudi Arabia will not only bolster the species itself but will help to conserve all of the other unique animals which live within these ecosystems. Arabian Oryx, Nubian Ibex, Idmi Gazelle, Blanford’s Fox, Red Fox, Arabian Wolf and countless other species have flown under the conservation radar and the protection of one flagship species, the Arabian Leopard, could change that.
Over the past year, our field team has surveyed 11 sites across the Arabian Peninsula. We have hiked hundreds of miles and set up over 800 camera stations in wadis, on mountains, close to cliff faces, and just about everywhere that one might hope to find an Arabian leopard. With such a comprehensive and thorough effort, one can’t help but feel that Panthera and the Royal Commission for Al Ula will successfully find Arabian Leopards – if they are here - and begin paving the way towards the conservation of this critically endangered big cat.