Is the catwalk the last ecosystem of the Arabian Leopard?

With the Arabian Leopard, the last of the big cats still roaming the region, on the brink of extinction, the insatiable demand for animals' skins and flesh is no longer defensible.

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Asad, Hamza, Haider, Abbas, Osama and Laith - what do they all have in common? Yes, they are Arabic names, and they also happen to all mean "lion" in Arabic. There are many words because each conveys a distinct leonine nuance: leaping lion, young lion or frowning lion, for example.

The cultural significance of an animal is illustrated by the number of words that describe it, and how these words are used as names. The "gazelle" girls - Rasha, Reem, Azzah, Khawla and Al Anood - can say that their namesakes still grace the Arabian peninsula (although some species are endangered). Laith and his brothers, however, are the last "lions" that still survive here.

Legend tells us that the last lion on the peninsula was shot in the 1930s by a British military officer at al Hasa oasis in Saudi Arabia. That rumour, fed in recent years by internet speculation, is contradicted by equally apocryphal reports of wild lions being sighted in Yemen as late as the 1950s. Slightly more credible sources suggest the species has been extinct on the peninsula for at least 100 years.

The last big cat on the peninsula is the Arabian Leopard, the feline majesty Panthera pardus nimr. The 2nd century BC Greek historian Agatharchides of Cnidus wrote about this subspecies : "Unlike those found in Caria and Lycia [Turkey], their bodies are large, and they are much better able to endure wounds and pain. In strength, moreover, they surpass the others by as much as a wild animal does a domesticated one."

Unfortunately, this Arabian super subspecies is on the brink. In 1994, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources classified the leopard as endangered; a 2006 report estimated that there were fewer than 200 left roaming the Arabian wilderness.

Meanwhile, shop windows offer leopard-print stilettos with matching handbags and accessories. The unmistakable markings of this beautiful creature - fortunately, reproduced from synthetic materials these days - have become a fashion favourite. The predatory "bad kitty" look is certainly no stranger to the catwalk.

The leopard's signature markings, called rosettes because they resemble blooming roses, have adorned everything from Lycra leotards to painted fingernails. The distinctive pattern is arguably the inspiration for trademarked prints such as Thomas Burberry's chequered pattern and the monogrammatic logo of Louis Vuitton.

Leopard skin must have been the original sartorial status signifier - in prehistoric times, nothing would have said "I won't freeze to death this winter" like a leopard-skin cape. Ancient art depicts pelts being offered to Egypt's pharaohs as tribute, with live beasts kept as royal pets.

It is the animal's beauty and majesty that has turned the predator into prey. But perhaps this beauty, or its threatened extinction, can excite similar passions for its salvation. One thing is certain: no amount of leopard-print fashion can fill the void if the real thing becomes extinct.

Some traditions relate that the descendants of the Prophet Nuh, also known as Noah, settled in Yemen, one of the last present-day refuges of the Arabian Leopard. According to Biblical and Quranic traditions, Noah saved animals along with humans during the flood. Who are we to undo this handiwork?

There are undoubtedly moral, not just theological, arguments for saving the Arabian Leopard, and the many other species on the precipice of anthropogenic extinction. An insatiable appetite for animals' flesh, skins and natural habitats is no longer defensible in our world of diminishing resources.

We are slowly, and often reluctantly, relinquishing the delusion that every element of nature has to be developed for our benefit.

Justin Thomas is an assistant professor at Zayed University. For more information about the Arabian Leopard, visit