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Young Reader's World

The Last Lair of the Leopard - Adapted from a story by Anna McKibbin
"Yes, that's right! I'm an Arabian leopard. But why have you entered my realm?"

The leopard emerges from beneath an overhanging rock in mountains of Dhofar in southern Oman. Its pale coat blends in perfectly with the dusty background on the rugged range of peaks known as Jabal Samhan. Positioning itself in front of a vertical rock face, the leopard lifts its tail stiffly and sprays the rock with a pungent calling card. Then it then sniffs the boulders for evidence of other visitors and slinks off down the trail.

It's hard to absorb the significance of what we've just seen, and perhaps even harder to picture the Arabia of ancient times when sights like this were commonplace. The second-century bc Greek geographer and historian Agatharchides wrote, “The pasturage ... supports flocks and herds of all sorts. Crowds of lions, wolves and leopards gather from the desert, [and] against these the herdsmen are compelled to fight day and night in defense of their flocks.”

Today, it's very different. The lions disappeared centuries ago, and the wolves are few in number. But—somehow—the leopard managed to linger. Jabal Samhan, a super-arid network of rocky plateaus and nearly impenetrable gullies where June shade temperatures regularly top 46 degrees Centigrade (115°F), is one of the last lairs of the elusive Arabian leopard.

Arabian Leopard Factfile

Scientific name: Panthera pardus nimr
Head and Body Length: 1.3 meters (4' 4")
Weight: Male 30 kilograms (66 lbs), female 20 kilograms (44 lbs)
Habitat: Mountainous areas with forest/scrub, preferably with permanent water sources
Prey: Gazelle, ibex, hyrax
Threats: Persecution, poaching, habitat loss, prey depletion
Behavior: Generally thought to be nocturnal, but this is now in question. Marks territory using scrapes, scent marking and defecation.

Unlike Agatharchides, however, I still haven't seen an Arabian leopard in the wild. Very few people have. What we viewed this morning was an image on a video screen. The Arabian leopard is one of the rarest animals on the planet. Until recently, no one knew for sure if the leopard still lived in the Dhofar mountains. The only visible evidence of its continued survival had been the occasional goat seized from a settlement on the edge of the territory, often followed by the discovery of a leopard carcass bearing a lethal gunshot wound.

For humans, the odds of a chance encounter with a leopard are almost zero. Not only is the stealthy cat wary of humans, its coat is such that it blends in almost seamlessly with its environment.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature has classified the Arabian leopard as “critically endangered,” meaning it faces an extremely high risk of extinction. In 1976, Oman granted it special protection and in 1997 further safeguards were enacted when an area of 4500 square kilometers (1740 sq mi) comprising Jabal Samhan was declared a protected area. But, it was unclear whether, by that time, it already had edged too far toward extinction. Unclear, that is, until one man took up the challenge to find and photograph the animals.

Using goats as bait, researchers in 2001 trapped four leopards and fitted them with satellite tagging collars. This allowed real-time tracking of their movements: One leopard covered 476 kilometers (295 mi) in 55 days.
"Steady there—we're almost finished!" says a researcher as he holds the head of a sedated leopard, fitted with a GPS collar. To trap this leopard and three others in 2001, the researchers use goats as bait.

“It started in 1989,” explains wildlife cameraman David Willis. “I was interested in filming ibex and heard that in Jabal Samhan you could see herds of up to 40 animals. One night while camping we heard a leopard calling. I'd heard them before in Africa but didn't think it was possible to encounter them in Oman. Then, over the next few days, we saw the tracks.”

Willis decided to try to photograph the animals. He used a homemade system of remote 35-mm cameras, installed in locations where he had found footprints, “scrapes” made by pawing the ground and other leopard markings. Each camera was linked to a carefully disguised pressure plate—a plywood platform that would trigger the shutter when it was stepped on. Willis left the setup in the mountains and then traveled some 1000 kilometers (620 mi) back to his home in Muscat, the capital of Oman.

“When I recovered the film three months later and saw that 15 frames had been shot, I assumed they would be pictures of dogs and donkeys—maybe the occasional camel,” Willis explains. But when he had the film developed that he saw, among the dogs and donkeys, eight pictures of an animal few had ever seen in the wild: likely the first-ever images of the Arabian leopard.

Research Methods

Oman's Arabian Leopard Survey uses a variety of techniques to learn more about its subject:
Ground surveys: Researchers comb the area for signs of leopard presence. These include territorial scrapes, scats or urine, scent sprays and evidence of kills.
Camera trapping: A weatherproofed camera is positioned next to routes known to be used by leopards. The camera may be triggered either by a pressure plate or an infrared beam. Researchers can use the resulting images to identify individual leopards.
Satellite tagging: Leopards are trapped, sedated and fitted with collars carrying satellite tags. Although expensive, the collars can provide detailed information about the leopards' movements and behavior.

There's no denying that the Arabian leopard is a magnificent beast. Its coat is a creamy-buttermilk color, its rosettes (the technical name for the spots that pepper its lean frame) an inky black. The combination makes it virtually invisible in its rocky hideout. Although smaller than its African counterpart, this is a powerful predator—though clearly not one averse to a little fun: One series of shots shows a leopard in a variety of airborne poses, returning repeatedly to bounce on the spring-loaded pressure plate.

After hearing about Willis's work, Dr. Andrew Spalton, adviser for Conservation of the Environment in Oman, immediately recognized its potential and the Arabian Leopard Survey was born. “We suffered endless technical issues,” explains Spalton. “Our equipment overheated, leopards scent-marked the cameras by rubbing against them, donkeys knocked them over, and mice chewed through the cables.” Even when the camera-traps worked, the results were less than reliable. “Having mounted a major expedition to recover films and reset traps, we could get entire films full of nothing but donkeys. From a total of 13 cameras, we might get one leopard image,” he says. Nonetheless, between 1997 and 2000, the team gathered a total of 251 photos of Arabian leopards.

To count the number of leopards recorded on film, researchers used the shape and pattern of the rosettes on each leopard's coat. These are unique to each animal, rather like a human fingerprint. Analysis of the images revealed 17 individuals: 16 adults (nine females, five males and two of unknown sex) and, most exciting, a cub. The results suggested a total population of around 50, confirmed that the leopards were breeding and offered invaluable information about leopard behavior.

Using goats as bait, researchers in 2001 trapped four leopards and fitted them with satellite tagging collars. This allowed real-time tracking of their movements: One leopard covered 476 kilometers (295 mi) in 55 days.
"Believe me, saving the leopard will help your village and the area," says a Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve ranger. The goal is to persuade local residents that the benefits of keeping the leopards alive will outweigh the loss of livestock to the leopard.

Leopards are widely considered nocturnal animals. However, those in one of the three monitoring areas were most active from six to nine in the morning and three to seven in the evening. Spalton thinks that this could be due to the different environmental conditions in this area, which includes a steep-sided gorge with permanent water and plenty of shade.

But a more important factor, he suggests, is the absence of human activity. Since leopards avoid human contact, with none in the area, the leopard can adjust its activities to suit environmental conditions.

In 2001, Spalton led the team on an even more ambitious project—satellite tagging. Team members capture the animals and then sedate and fit each with a collar carrying a small GPS device. The collars store data for three months and then drop off. Despite some technical hitches, four collars have been recovered and the data they contained reveal some astonishing information about the leopards' movements. For example, some travel long distances. One covered 476 kilometers (295 mi) in a 55-day period!


Such distances are not difficult to explain. Data gathered by the survey team suggest that male leopards in this area have an average annual home range of 180 square kilometers (70 sq mi), while leopards living in lush grasslands, which support a higher concentration of prey, may have a range of 50 square kilometers (19 sq mi) or less.

But the leopard's need for food and the fact that it roams such a wide area have brought it into conflict with another predator: humans—specifically, the nomadic tribesmen of Jabal Samhan who keep camels in the hills. When the khareef, the southwest monsoon, brings rains, the tribesmen bring their camels to the lower pastures.

Hadi al Hikmani, a member of a Jabal Samhan family, says, “In some ways my parents regarded the leopard as an enemy to be feared, as it kills livestock. But if we heard the leopard calling when we sat round our camp at night, everyone would get very excited. It was regarded as a good omen. The older men said it would be a good year ahead.”

Local schools, too, are teaching that leopards are not just large pests, but integral to the southern Omani ecology.
"Look. Here's a photo of one of our country's most prized treasures—the Arabian leopard." In Oman today, students learn that while leopards may at times be a nuisance, they are also an integral part of southern Oman's ecology.

Today, al Hikmani is employed full-time by the Arabian Leopard Survey. His job is to help bridge the gap between the local population, many of whom still view the leopard as a livestock killer, and the Omani government, which seeks to protect an endangered predator. Spalton is keen to demonstrate that preserving the leopard can bring economic benefits, partly through the introduction of carefully controlled, low-impact tourism projects.

However, as old conflicts are resolved, new ones are created. While the leopards need huge territories to survive, development creeps ever closer in the form of new roads, houses and hotels. The survey team has already noticed a decline in the number of animals that have their pictures taken on camera-traps in one area.

What does the future hold for the shadowy leopard of Oman's Jabal Samhan? “To keep its place in the mountains, the leopard needs to find a place in people's hearts and minds,” says Spalton. Having adapted its habits to survive the 2200 years since the time of Agatharchides, the leopard may be able to succeed in making this further critical last leap.

If it can't, then the only place the next generation will see this mysterious mammal is on film.

To find out more about the Oman Arabian Leopard Survey, visit www.oryxoman.com/leopard_main.html.

Click here to view the original article (pages 24-31 of the March/April 2009 Saudi Aramco World).

Anna McKibbin is a free-lance nature correspondent ([email protected]) who is fascinated by the wildlife of the Middle East. 



This lesson correlates to the following national standards for world history and language arts, established by MCREL at http://www.mcrel.org/:

  • Understands the concept of extinction and its importance in biological evolution
    (e.g., when the environment changes, the adaptive characteristics of some species are insufficient to allow their survival; extinction is common; most of the species that have lived on the Earth no longer exist)
  • Gathers and uses information for research purposes
  • Demonstrates competency in the general skills and strategies of the writing process