Rare Arabian leopard cub born in captivity lifts conservationists' hopes

The female cub was born at the Prince Saud Al-Faisal Wildlife Research Centre in Saudi Arabia on April 23

An Arabian leopard cub has been born at a captive breeding centre in Saudi Arabia – a step forward in conserving this critically endangered subspecies.

The female cub was born at the Prince Saud Al Faisal Wildlife Research Centre near Taif in south-west Saudi Arabia on April 23 and was checked by vets, who identified the animal's sex, in mid-July.

Habitat loss, a decline of prey species and persecution have caused the number of Arabian leopards to fall for centuries and there are now thought to be fewer than 200 in the wild.

But ambitious plans to reintroduce the creatures to north-west Saudi Arabia offer hope that they could become more widespread in the wild once again.

Typically slightly paler than its African cousin, the Arabian leopard is known as An Nimr Al Arabi in Arabic and has, along with other mammals such as camels, been depicted in ancient rock art in Saudi Arabia.

Classified as “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the subspecies is found in the wild in Oman, Yemen and, possibly, Saudi Arabia.

Previously it roamed in mountainous areas of Ras al Khaimah and Fujairah as well as in many other parts of the Arabian Peninsula and even the Levant.

The aim is to use the captive-breeding programme to support the reintroduction of the creatures to Al Ula, a 22,561 square-kilometre area of desert and mountains in north-west Saudi Arabia.

Restoring nature's balance

The cub’s birth was announced by the Royal Commission for Al Ula. It was established to protect the area, which is culturally significant as well as being renowned for its natural history.

The RCU, which runs the Taif breeding centre, has established a $25-million fund to protect the Arabian leopard.

Dr Ahmed Almalki, the Royal Commission's nature reserves director, said the birth represented “one step further towards reviving the Arabian leopard”.

“We believe that saving endangered species such as the Arabian leopard is critical to the protection of our planet and the natural balance of our ecosystem. Our goal at RCU is nothing less than to restore the power of nature’s balance."

A new breeding centre is due to open by early 2024 in Sharaan Nature Reserve in Al Ula, where indigenous plants and animals will be restored and conserved, and local people trained as rangers.

Efforts to reintroduce the Arabian leopard, one of several leopard subspecies the IUCN classifies as endangered or critically endangered, will also involve the reintroduction of prey, including the Nubian ibex, a desert goat, and the Idmi gazelle, also known as the Arabian mountain gazelle.

Part of the wider Saudi Green Initiative, the work is being carried out in association with Panthera, an organisation focused on big cat conservation, and the IUCN.

There are now more than 15 leopards at the centre in Taif, ranging in age from about 15 years to a pair of cubs born two years ago. Reports indicate that no date has been set for when reintroductions will start.

Previous mammal reintroductions on the Arabian peninsula has proved successful, notably with the Arabian oryx, with breeding programmes in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Updated: September 29th 2021, 6:48 AM
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