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By: Marijcke Jongbloed

  Some twenty years ago very few people in the Emirates were aware of the presence of leopards in the mountains in the East of the country. Even the fact that there was a variety of other wildlife there had escaped the notice of all but the few local people who lived in that area. In the late eighties there was a spate of killings of caracals that was noticed by many people because the killed cats were hung from trees along the roads that traversed the Hajar and Ru’us al Jibal Mountains. A caracal is a graceful cat, about as large as a medium-sized dog, with long legs, a short blunt tail and pointed ears with tufts of long black hair at the tips. It is overall orangey-brown in colour and is locally often called “al-hamr” – the red one. (Another local name is “fahd” which is actually Arabic for cheetah.)

  Because human hunters have eliminated its original wild prey, such as gazelles and partridges, this predator cat has to resort to the killing of the goats and chickens of the farmers, who try to eke out a living in very inhospitable surroundings. This does not make the caracals particularly popular. Even if another animal such as a feral dog or a fox is guilty of the killing, the cats are getting the blame. In fact, any large predator that is spotted is a reason for a hunt to be organized. And since the mountain farmers are terrific trackers and marksmen, the hunts are usually successful.

  I was told about the presence of leopards in the UAE as early as 1984. When in 1989 there were reports of the killing of one large male leopard in the summer and three leopards in a cave in the winter, I was sure that this must have been the last family of leopards to have survived till then. Not until another leopard was killed and strung up in 1993 did I realise that there might be few more remaining. Via the newspaper I searched for people who would be interested in mounting a campaign to save the Arabian leopard. For the next 10 years the Arabian Leopard Trust tried to raise public awareness of the presence of wildlife in the country and of the many threats that this wildlife faced.

  The Arabian leopard is a subspecies that is only about half of the size of the better-known African and Indian leopards. A male will reach 45 kilos, a female only 25. It is much lighter in colour, with a very light grey skin covered with black spots in rosettes with brownish centers. The ears are round and the tail is very long with a black tip. Among the slate-coloured rocks of the Arabian mountains it has perfect camouflage. It is probably due to this fact that any of these large predators has survived in the bleak Hajar Mountains, where so little wildlife remains to provide them with food. They have learned to cope with very little, and will eat anything, however small. But the main food consists of the goats that roam all over the mountains. Leopards need water and are regular visitors at the few permanent water holes that are hidden in remote valleys and gorges. Locally the animal is called “nimr”, which is actually the Arabic word for tiger. Its Latin name is Panthera pardus nimr.


Caracals strung up on trees are meant to deter other predators from catching goats (Photo by J. Peacock)   Arabian leopard in its cage on a Yemen suq   The picture that started the Arabian Leopard Trust (by John Gregory)

  In Oman some leopards had been captive in the Sultan’s breeding center and a few litters of young had been raised. In the UAE one male leopard had been caught alive around 1990 and he was living a lonely existence in a sheikh’s garden.

  When the Arabian Leopard Trust (ALT for short) started its activities, the following objectives were formulated:

  Public awareness needed to be raised about the existence of wildlife in the country and about the difficult conditions that this wildlife had to cope with.

  Research had to be done to find out exactly what was the status of the various wild animals in the Emirates.

  Whatever animals were already in captivity needed to be brought up together in order to establish captive breeding groups.

  Areas suitable for nature reserves needed to be identified and proposed to local governments, so that sometime in the future wild animals would have a place where they could be protected from hunting and poaching.

  We tackled the various problems without any experience but with a lot of enthusiasm. Raising public awareness was easily combined with raising funds to finance the other targets. We held family days on the beach or in the desert with games, concerts, auctions, sponsored runs and sales of promotional articles. These promotional articles were designed and produced by ALT committee members, often helped by local artists who gave freely of their time and talents.

  T-shirts, coffee mugs, shopping bags and children’s toys were on display in local supermarkets and made their way into many a home. The most popular design was that of a leopard face on a spotted T-shirt with the text: “Don’t say goodbye”.

  Some of the ALT committee members spent all their free time roaming the mountains talking to the farmers there to pick their brains about whatever wildlife they knew of and to try to explain why we wanted to protect this wildlife. Their visits were not always welcomed, but in the end a small group of locals from Ras al Khaymah joined the effort and talked with their tribal members, sometimes even halting the preparations for a leopard or caracal hunt.

  For a while we tried to raise money with the collection of aluminium cans. We had some large collecting cages on wheels built that were placed in schoolyards and next to shopping centers. The double purpose of cleaning the environment and doing something to contribute to the saving of the Arabian leopard inspired hundreds of school children to collect cans from their homes and surroundings. Large companies donated money to build the cages and to process the collections. The full potential of this effort was never realized, because the collections were polluted with lots of garbage other than aluminium and the cost of cleaning the collections and dragging the collection cages to and from the aluminium factory was prohibitive. In the end the aluminium collection was taken over by the Emirates Environmental group.

  Many schools and organizations were involved in the ALT activities or came up with their own initiatives. Concerts were held, schools wrote and performed musicals, an international wildlife art exhibition was held in Sharjah and Dubai, and desert cleaning trips were organized. All of the work done and contributions given by the residents of the country is described in the book “Working for Wildlife” that is available in some bookshops and at all libraries and schools throughout the country. (Copies can also still be requested from the author of this article)

  What was done with the money that was raised? The first very important activity was to organize and finance the mountain research. For this purpose the help was sought of a husband-and-wife team from South Africa. Chris and Tilde Stuart had experience tracking and observing wild animals, including leopards. From 1995 till 1998 they spent 8 months in total scouring the UAE countryside for the presence of wildlife, any wildlife. They were not successful at first in finding any sign of leopards. The terrain where the leopards lived is incredibly difficult to negotiate. Leopards usually leave signs like scratch marks on trees. Here there were almost no trees. The number of leopards was so small that it was almost impossible to find scats or the remains of kills. In fact, there would not be anything left if a leopards killed a prey here! However, now that it was known throughout the country that the ALT was interested in wildlife sightings some information began to find its way back to us. In the course of the next few years we were able to map some confirmed leopard and caracal sightings. The result gave cause for concern. The number of leopards was assessed at about half a dozen in the whole area from the Ru’us al Jibal to the southern Hajar Mountains in Oman. The number of caracals was maybe a few dozen. Wolves seemed to be extinct. Foxes were still common. Very, very few gazelles were recorded.

  There were a few exciting moments: very early in the first study campaign a small mountain fox was caught, photographed and measured by the Stuarts before being released again. This turned out to be Blanford’s fox (Vulpes cana), which had not been recorded in the UAE before. It was only known from Afghanistan and from Western Saudi Arabia and southern Oman. After the Stuarts learned to identify its scats, it turned out to be present in good numbers. Its presence had remained a secret due to its terrific camouflage, its shy behaviour and the fact that it was probably confused with the red fox if it happened to be seen.


Andy. the first of now 15 offspring of captive Arabian leopards in Sharjah   The beautiful caracal (by JF Lagrot)

  The other bit of good news was the sighting and recording on film of the rare Arabian tahr (Hemitragus jayakari). This is a small goat-like ungulate that lives on the steepest rocky slopes of the Hajar Mountains. It was thought to have been extinct in the UAE since the early eighties, but since its re-discovery in 1995 it has been sighted in various places (including Jebel Hafeet!) in very small numbers.

  Not only wildlife information came the way of the ALT. We also started collecting already captive animals, often rescuing them from horrible conditions. The high point, of course, was the rescue of a young male Arabian leopard from the Suq of Sana’a in Yemen. The whole story of this rescue would take another article. Here I can only mention that after more than a year of trial and tribulation, Nimrod Felix (a.k.a. Arnold) arrived in the UAE in May 1995. He was housed temporarily in custom-built cages in the garden of one of the ALT-helpers, Christian Gross, a young Swiss man with knowledge of and heart for wild animals. “Arnold” was soon joined by a young female on breeding loan from the breeding group in Oman. The two leopards got along very well and soon started mating. However, it took several years before one of the cubs survived: hand-reared Andy bin Arnold was out first breeding success.

  Breeding caracals proved to be much more difficult. The first hand-reared female (rescued after her mother had been shot) was killed during mating by a male that was on loan from the Taif Wildlife Centre in Saudi Arabia. The contact with the wildlife conservation authorities in neighbouring countries was formalized, first by the ALT in the Leopard Group of Arabia that held its first meeting in 1995 and 1996 and was later continued by so-called CAMP meetings at the Sharjah Desert Park.

  The target of establishing captive breeding groups of local wild animals received a terrific boost when HH Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammad al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah decided to develop a desert park dedicated to the natural history of the region. This Desert Park included a Natural History Museum, a Wildflower garden, a Breeding Center for endangered Arabian animals and the Wildlife Centre, a state-of-the-art zoo.

  The Breeding Centre was opened in May 1998. It seemed huge but the dozens of cages and enclosures were soon filled with a great variety of Arabian wild animals. The latest information that reached me this week was that there are now 21 leopards present at the Breeding Centre and the zoo, 15 of which were born there. Absent at the moment is the "pater familias", Nimrod Felix, who is on breeding loan in Oman.

  The last and very important target of the ALT was the establishment of nature reserves in the Hajar and/or Ru’us al Jibal Mountains. The ALT employed an expert for three years to work with the local people and the authorities of Ras al Khaymah in order to prepare the way for the securing of an area where wildlife could be protected. Unfortunately time ran out before the target was reached. In 2003 the ALT handed over to the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) to continue this effort. WWF is now well-established in Abu Dhabi and has continued to work on the fundament that the ALT built earlier.

  It is extremely important that people stay aware that there is wildlife in the desert, and that its hold on life is tenuous. Nature reserves can never be a success if the people living in the area do not participate in the running of the reserve or even profit from nature conservation efforts.

  In Oman there are two reserves run on this principle – one for the Arabia tahr in Wadi Sareen and one in the Jebel Samhan region in Dhofar for the leopards.

  In the coming spring an interesting project will take place in the Ru’us al Jibal Mountains in the Musandam Peninsula (Oman), close to Ras al Khaymah. Three groups of volunteers will each spend two weeks surveying the mountains for any sign of wildlife, mapping permanent water holes and developing ideas for wildlife conservation in those bleak mountains.

  The project is run by the organization called Biosphere expeditions in cooperation with the wildlife conservation department of the Sultan in Oman. Who knows what news will come out of this effort. May it spell peace and protection for the unique and beautiful Arabian leopard that is still being hunted even today!


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