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Arabian leopard on verge of extinction

By Severin Carrell

16 February 2003


One of the Middle East's rarest predators, the Arabian leopard, is on the edge of extinction.

Once a common sight across the Arabian peninsula, this smallest of the leopard family, barely three times the size of a domestic cat, lives in the arid coastal mountain ranges of Saudi Arabia and through Yemen, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Its wilderness habitat is shrinking and its prey disappearing. The animal is so scarce that conservationists believed it was extinct until one specimen was found, shot dead by a goatherd, in 1992.

Since then, conservationists have struggled to establish accurately how many survive. They believe that only 150 to 250 now live in the wild, scattered from as far north as Sinai in Egypt, down the Red Sea, then eastwards through Yemen and Oman over the Indian Ocean and north towards the Gulf.

Rarely heavier than 25kg, and half the size of its African cousin, the Arabian leopard is a victim of human population growth.

Herds of domestic goats uproot and devastate the plants which once fed its natural prey: the Nubian ibex, Arabian gazelle and wild goats. The leopard is then driven into more remote areas or to hunt among goats, making it a target.

It has, however, also emerged as the latest symbol of the Arab world's struggle to defend its environment.

On Saturday, some of the region's leading conservationists and leopard experts will meet in Sharjah, a tiny city in the United Arab Emirates best known for its cricket tournaments and horse-racing, to plan the next stage of their attempts to restore its population.

Their most pressing task is finding the most accurate possible census of numbers. Experts from across the region, the World Conservation Union and WWF International will offer their best estimates.

The UAE, however, already knows how many leopards survive in the wild within its borders: barely 10.

But the most ambitious task facing this week's summit meeting is establishing legally protected mountain nature reserves. It is a difficult long-term project and involves overcoming centuries of traditions over grazing rights for goats, buying up land and agreeing cross-border reserves.

Sharjah, the third largest of UAE's seven emirates, is now at the centre of the survival plan. A breeding centre funded by its ruler, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Quasimi, and run by the Animal Management Consultancy, has successfully bred eight leopards and is now on its second generation of captive-bred animals.

Last month, it also became home for Al Wadei, a wild leopard which had been caged in appalling conditions in a private "zoo" in Yemen, where it was baited by locals who paid a small fee to inspect it.

It may take years, however, before nature reserves are set up, leaving the wild populations that survive under continued threat.

"The key issue has been to find out what the numbers are, and where the best possibilities would be for nature reserves," said Christian Gross, the director of the Sharjah breeding centre.

"We need to decide what the best recommendations would be, so each and every delegate can go home to his decision-maker and get him interested in starting setting land aside, and start negotiations for nature reserves."


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