Saudi Arabia’s ancient city of AlUla is perhaps best known for its archaeological heritage and position at the forefront of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 economic plan.
But also part of the work to restore the area to its former glory is an ambitious goal to return Arabian leopards to Saudi Arabia in greater numbers.
A team from Panthera, a global wild cat conservation group, is working with the Royal Commission for AlUla to work out how best to help the animals.
Gareth Mann, director of Panthera’s Leopard Programme, said no leopards have been spotted in Saudi Arabia since 2014, so the first task of the project would be to discover if any lived in the area.
If animals are found, the group will look for ways to conserve the population. If not, a far larger project to reintroduce the animals will begin.
“The Arabian leopard is quite possibly the world’s most endangered big cat. There are thought to be fewer than 200 left in the wild, and they have been reduced to an estimated 1 per cent of their historical range,” Dr Mann said.
“Saudi Arabia contains the lion’s share of the historical range of Arabian leopards, and so trying to conserve the population with KSA will be key to improving the overall status of the species.”
Arabian leopard's natural habitat ranges from mountainous forests to grasslands. Human interaction and habitat loss are some of the reasons the species is struggling. Dr Mann says the Arabian Peninsula's climate and geography pose challenges to leopards not seen elsewhere.
"In most parts of the world, mountain ecosystems remain relatively intact as they are difficult to access and develop. Mountains can thus serve as a refuge for wildlife. However, in much of the region mountains are highly desirable development locations as they are cooler and get more rain than the low-lying areas," he told The National.
"Leopards and other wildlife are thus squeezed into a small band of habitat in the extremely steep slopes between the top of the mountain (where there is often extensive urban development) and the bottom of the mountain (where livestock herders seek to exploit water running off from the mountain) – this makes conflict with people almost inevitable."
Emma Gallacher, conservation initiatives lead at RCU, agreed there was a pressing need to protect the species in the face of such threats.
“The Arabian Leopard is a powerful symbol of Saudi Arabia and RCU’s extensive environmental sustainability ambitions,” she said.
“The leopard occupies a unique place in the collective consciousness and imagination of the region: images of the big cat have been found in ancient rock art, have inspired folk tales and are even used in modern, everyday expressions.”
Conservation and reproduction efforts are already under way. RCU’s breeding centre in Taif has recorded several births, including that of a female cub in April 2021.
The animals live wild in southern Oman in small numbers, and the UAE has a large captive population at the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife in Sharjah. They are thought to also exist in Yemen, but tracking and undertaking conservation measures there is difficult due to the conflict raging since 2014.
“While we recognise the immense challenges facing the Arabian leopard, there are certainly grounds for cautious optimism about the future prospects of the species,” Dr Mann said.