Saudi Arabia wants leopards to roam free once again

Captive-breeding programmes and habitat restoration efforts mean prospects for this once-widespread predator are fast improving

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With its beautiful markings and piercing gaze, the Arabian leopard is as stunning to look at as it is rare.

Hunting, habitat loss and a lack of prey have caused numbers to fall to dramatically low levels and there are now thought to be fewer than 200 individuals left in the wild in Yemen, Oman and, possibly, Saudi Arabia.

As a result, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies this subspecies as critically endangered — one category up from extinct in the wild.

Yet prospects for this creature, which once roamed widely across the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant, are looking up, in large part thanks to a programme in Saudi Arabia to breed the animal in captivity and, ultimately, release it into the wild.

We have to protect areas, restore the ecosystem, bring back vegetation, bring back the animals the leopard will feed on
Dr Stephen Browne, wildlife and natural heritage executive director, RCU

It will not be straightforward to re-establish the Arabian leopard in AlUla, a partly mountainous region in the north-west of the country. But there is certainly no lack of will — or funds.

Restoring the ecosystem

The Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), which has national responsibility to bring back the animal, has created the Arabian Leopard Fund with a $25 million endowment to promote conservation efforts, and has signed a 10-year, $20 million agreement with a US organisation, Panthera, which is supporting the efforts.

Experts with experience of conservation around the world have been brought in and a new breeding centre will be established.

The hope is that, from 2030 onwards, captive-bred Arabian leopards could be released in AlUla, where there is a large — and growing — protected area.

“We have to protect areas, restore the ecosystem, bring back vegetation, bring back the animals the leopard will feed on,” says Dr Stephen Browne, who joined the RCU as wildlife and natural heritage executive director a year ago.

Rare Arabian leopard cubs born in AlUla

Two female cubs bring hope reintroduce the leopard to Al Ula. Photo: The Royal Commission for AlUla

“If we get to a point where we can release the leopard, that will be a great thing, but to get there we’ll have to restore so much habitat and make a difference at an ecological level.”

The RCU aims to put 22,561 square kilometres of AlUla under protection — an area 80 per cent the size of Belgium — and plant 10 million trees. Currently AlUla has five protected areas covering 12,000 square kilometres.

The organisation is working to increase the numbers of Arabian leopards in captivity. At present there are 19 animals at a breeding centre in Taif, in south-west Saudi Arabia, that the RCU has taken over and that Panthera is helping to upgrade.

In August the birth of two female cubs was announced, while another female was born in April 2021, following other births at the centre.

“The cubs born this year, the cub born last year, they will enter into the breeding programme in a year or two. We’ve done very well to date, but we’re set to do even better going forward,” says Dr Browne, a British biologist who has been involved in projects around the globe.

“One of the key things for us is international co-operation. One of the things we’re looking to do more of in future is to exchange animals between different breeding centres.”

This will increase the genetic diversity of the animals that AlUla looks after, enabling the organisation to bring more of its own animals into the breeding programme.

The Arabian leopard ― scientific name Panthera pardus nimr ― is classed as a subspecies rather than a species in its own right.

But it differs considerably from other leopards, typically being lighter in colour and much smaller than, for example, its African cousin.

Whether the Arabian leopard still exists at all in the wild in Saudi Arabia is uncertain. Previous estimates put the population in the country at about 50, but recent camera-trap surveys have failed to detect any.

Lions and cheetahs also once roamed Saudi Arabia, but are no longer found in the wild there. That could change, because the RCU hopes in the longer term to develop a programme to release cheetahs.

For the moment, the focus is on the Arabian leopard, and the RCU hopes to create a sense of national pride around the animal.

Ensuring a 'prey' presence

While the creature has sometimes been seen as a threat by, for example, goat herders, the RCU is keen for citizens to value the creature and see it as an emblem for a wider renaissance of nature in the region.

“We’re very much holding the species as a flagship, building on this idea that culturally it was once important,” says Dr Browne, who highlights the way the animal was featured in ancient rock art.

Releasing large predators is a complex operation that requires that the animals being released learn how to catch prey.

“We need a large enclosure where they’re away from people, and experience wild prey — start with small things like rabbits and work their way up to bigger prey,” Dr Browne says.

As well as the animals being able to hunt, there must be sufficient numbers of prey.

“The prey base is so low it might take decades before it is at a level to support Arabian leopards and other species,” Dr Browne says.

Saudi Arabia’s National Centre for Wildlife is already contributing to efforts to increase the populations of prey species.

Last year it released about 700 animals, nearly 200 of them in reserves that come under the RCU’s auspices, and this year will release about 1,000.

The RCU’s plans to release prey species will include modestly sized animals such as hares and gerbils as well as larger prey such as gazelle and oryx.

“For me the most important thing is that, the day that we release a leopard in Saudi Arabia, we’ll have to have done so much more,” Dr Browne says.

“We’ll have to have protected areas, we’ll have to have made those protected areas functioning, we’ll have to have restored the ecosystem, we’ll have to have got the prey base back, we’ll have to have worked with the communities and then, in 10 years’ time or eight years’ time maybe, when we release that first leopard, so much will have happened.

“20,000 square kilometres of land in AlUla will have been restored so we can bring back leopards. That 20,000 square kilometres will contain thousands, millions of other plants, insects and other animals, and hundreds of species will have benefited from our focus on Arabian leopards.”

Dr Browne says Saudi Arabia’s efforts — and those of neighbouring countries, such as the UAE, where Arabian leopards are bred in Sharjah at the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife — fill him with optimism.

“We have the vision, we have the strategy, we have the resources, we have the political will, so everything that was absent [elsewhere] is here in this role, and that for me is exciting.”

Updated: November 13, 2022, 4:35 AM