Today I’m writing the first of two posts about the Arabian leopard. Instead of writing one long blog post about both the threats facing Arabian leopards and what can be done to save them I’ve decided to break them up into two separate posts, today’s focusing on the threats they face, and tomorrow’s, the current conservation efforts. I’ve approached the posts I’ve previously written from many different perspectives in order to keep this blog as accessible as possible for everyone. There’s been some biological ones, some ecological ones and even one from a more historical viewpoint, and today’s post although still focusing on big cats, will be written from a geographical perspective to not only draw awareness to the threats facing the Arabian leopard, but also the impacts irresponsible human over-development can have on the futures of many species.
The Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimir) is one of the rarest big cats on Earth. With fewer than 200 wild individuals when counted in 2006 it has been listed as critically endangered by the ICUN since the mid 1990’s and exists in three, separate sub populations on the Arabian Peninsula (Israel, Yemen and Southern Oman). Arabian leopards are one the smallest subspecies of leopard, most closely related to the African leopard they were identified as a distinct subspecies only by the genetic analysis of a captive leopard in Israel.
With severely fragmented populations comprising just up to 50 mature individuals in each, the future looks depressingly bleak for leopards in the Arabian Peninsula, and with the cat already extinct in Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, bringing Arabian leopards back from the brink of extinction in the wild is probably the ecological equivalent of climbing Mt Everest. After all, rates of vertebrate extinction are the highest since the dinosaurs at the K/T boundary some 65 million years ago, and if we really are entering Earth’s sixth mass extinction then is the rapid loss of species we’re seeing all just part of one major geologic cycle?
Anyway, enough of the speculation and back to leopards!
It’s with a sinking sense of deja vu that the major threats facing Arabian leopards make unsurprisingly familiar reading. Habitat loss and fragmentation, depletion of prey and killing in response to livestock predation being the most prominent causes and the capturing 10 individuals from the Yemen desert in the 1990’s, means the species arguably stands a far higher chance of survival in captivity than in the wild (that’s just my opinion).
The threats facing leopards can all be intrinsically linked with one another, many of which go hand in hand with human development. I’ve outlined the primary threats facing Arabian leopards below and will then go on to address some of the more prominent threats in a little more detail.
- Lack of law enforcement despite legal protection
- Lack of appreciation for sustainability
- Habitat fragmentation and shrinking of the genetic pool
- Prey depletion through over hunting of leopard prey
- Public attitude and awareness of threat level
Arabian leopards are legally protected in Oman, with heavy fines and the potential of imprisonment on the cards for anyone found killing or harming leopards. However, with so few individuals, living in extremely remote habitats the policing of such a law is understandably much easier said than done. Leopards spend far more time in conflict with remote (probably non-policed), rural communities than they do with communities in large towns and cities. Whilst legal protection looks extremely good for governments on paper, the reality of enforcing such a “desk based” conservation policy, especially in less developed countries is that typing the words onto paper is about as far as it gets.
The over exploitation of resources is a huge topic in Earth Sciences these days, however an unsustainable approach to human development is indirectly harming Arabian leopards. The building of roads, destruction of woodland for growth and urban expansion, and the over extraction of natural resources has a damaging impact on both leopards and their prey. In a race to keep up with many Western countries, governments in the Middle East have followed an extremely irresponsible path of development, the consequences of which may only just be beginning to show. This unsustainable approach can be linked to many of the threats facing Arabian leopards, including habitat fragmentation, depletion of prey and loss of habitat.
Over hunting of the primary prey sources of Arabian leopards is having significant impacts on their plight for survival. Being hunters and not scavengers, Arabian leopards rely on a steady supply of fresh prey (including Ibex, Mountain Gazelle and Cape Hare) and an unsustainable approach to hunting by humans leaves a large food scarcity for leopards. Perhaps if both communities and governments adopted a more sustainable approach then lack of suitable prey would cease being a threat to Arabian leopard survival.
I’ll draw a far fetched comparison here with the slash and burn type farming you see from indigenous rainforest communities, or even crop rotation which we see on the vast majority of farms. Allowing gaps between periods of cultivation for the nutrients in the land to replenish ensures the communities long term survival, whereas if they farmed the same plot of land continuously their yield would begin to diminish. Pausing the hunting of certain species of leopard prey, such as hare or ibex, even for a small number of years would ensure a more plentiful supply of prey for both leopards and humans.
I drew upon this next point in my post about what can be done to ease the Indian human-tiger conflict, however a certain element bears a striking similarity to cases of human-Arabian leopard conflict, and that is public perception. Leopards in the most affected communities and townships aren’t viewed in the same way by the local populations as they are by the majority of us, sitting reading this post from the comfort of our home/office on a no doubt reasonably expensive computer. Locals whose lives and family welfare depend on their livestock have a right to feel worried and threatened by leopard predation, and as often the case with tigers in India, they take matters (and the law) into their own hands. I mentioned that policing the killing of leopards in Oman is a near impossible task, and having leopards viewed as pests and threats by local communities adds an extra layer of difficulty to their conservation. A successful Arabian leopard conservation programme must surely include a large element of grassroots work with the communities affected most by leopards, as it’s only through knowledge and education that we can begin protecting endangered species from the ground up.
My final point is perhaps the most significant threat to Arabian leopard survival, and that is simply the lack of knowledge about their species. The Arabian leopard is a relatively unstudied species of big cat, with funding for research often directed at more “glamorous” projects such as tigers. Very little information is available on even the most fundamental aspects of Arabian leopard biology such as male:female ratio, range sizes, susceptibility to diseases and the genetic status of the remaining population. Without the basic foundations, and the funding needed to establish these then any conservation programme will be severely hampered from the start.
In tomorrow’s post I’ll focus on the current conservation efforts regarding Arabian leopards, however in the meantime I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about leopards from a different, more geographical angle and I would love to hear your opinions about the plight of the Arabian leopard in the comments below!