Arabian leopard in fight for survival

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IN The Arabian Nights, the wild terrain of the Musandam peninsula, which separates the Arabian Sea from the Persian Gulf, was the abode of demons and one-eyed giants. Today its harsh mountains are one of the Arabian leopard's last refuges.

Until last year, Panthera Pardus Nimr, the rarest of the eight leopard sub-species, was thought to be extinct in the wild. But, sadly, its survival was proved by the shooting a year ago of a leopard near the tiny emirate of Ras al Khaymah.

Since then, a flurry of sightings has been reported in these mountains of the Arabian leopard and the Caracal lynx, the other remaining Arabian wild cat. For zoologists, this is good news and bad: good news because the leopard evidently exists in some numbers (although the best guess is only 100 in the entire Arabian peninsula from Israel to Dubai); and bad because with only two exceptions, all the leopards sighted have been shot dead by hunters and goat herds.

A meeting in in Dubai today could decide whether the Arabian leopard has a future outside zoos and private collections. The United Arab Emirates branch of a regional lobby group, Friends of the Environment, is to decide whether to incorporate the Arabian Leopard Trust as a subcommittee, enabling the animal's few but enthusiastic protectors to exert pressure on Arab governments. 'We focus on the Arabian leopard because few people know that it exists,' said Marijcke Jongbloed, a Dutch physician who works in a Dubai clinic.

The leopard is threatened not only by hunters but also by the falling numbers of its natural prey. Local zoologists say that the introduction of the domestic goat has broken the food chain: goats, unlike other grazing animals, wipe out plants, roots and all, and this has led to the extinction of the Nubian ibex, the wild sheep and the Arabian gazelle. All used to be the staple prey of the leopard and the lynx. As a result, cats have starved to death, been shot for attacking sheep, or spread over vast areas, reducing their chance of breeding.

UAE newspapers continue to publish letters condemning the shooting of two leopards by five tribesman near here on 13 May (one leopard was killed, the other was wounded, and fled). Local laws are supposed to protect these animals, but Horaz bin Ali, leader of the group that killed the leopard, says the law does not apply to him: he is not hunting; he is protecting sheep and goats from a predator. Mr bin Ali refuses to accept that the leopard is endangered. 'There are many of those flesh eaters,' he says 'We found four killed sheep a couple of days ago.'

It does indeed appear that hunting, in order to sell the startlingly beautiful leopard's skin, is not the motive. In all but one of seven recent killings, the animals were not skinned, but hung upside down. When asked why, Mr bin Ali and his friends were silent. When the question was repeated, they exchanged glances, then one said: 'To warn the others.'

Ms Jongbloed's group is calling on the World Wide Fund for Nature to allocate a natural habitat in Hadramawt, north-east Yemen, a geological extension of Musandam, as a reserve for the leopard and the lynx. And it is urging the Omani authorities, which have six related leopards in captivity, to lend one female to Dubai, where Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum keeps a male of a different genetic group in his private park. Unfortunately the Omanis say they fear that conditions in Dubai may not be suitable for their precious female.

(Photograph omitted)