Yes! Scats collected in Hajjah, northwest Yemen in January 2009 were positively identified by DNA evidence as having come from an Arabian leopard. A female leopard was photographed at the Hawf Protected Area on January 11, 2011 and a male was photographed there on Feburary 24, 2011 (see gallery
). These photographs are the most recent proof of Arabian leopards outside of Oman and the only pictures ever taken of wild Arabian leopards in Yemen. They also raise the possibility that Arabian leopards continue to breed in Yemen and that there may be some cross-border movement of leopards between Yemen and Oman.
Experts agree that the wild population of Arabian leopards is somewhere between 100 and 250 although a lack of accurate data from the range states makes it impossible to precisely estimate the population. There are at least 70 captive Arabian leopards in zoos, breeding centers, and private collections in the UAE, Oman, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia.
The only recently documented wild populations are in Oman, Yemen, and Palestine/Israel. Currently, as many as 50 wild leopards may range on Jebels Samhan, Qamar, and Qara in the Dhofar region of Oman. There are probably fewer than ten in the Negev Desert and Judean Highlands north of the Arabian Peninsula. Many experts believe that Arabian leopards are extinct in the UAE although some people state that there are a few in the Musandam Peninsula and possibly also in Wadi Wuraya. We have recently documented the existence of wild Arabian leopards in Yemen and most experts agree that there are probably some in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The Arabian Leopard is the smallest of all leopard subspecies and it has a paler coat than other leopards. It has golden-brown eyes and is very narrow at the shoulder and hips which is a presumed adaptation for maneuvering in the boulder strewn landscape that it inhabits. Arabian Leopards have an unusually long tail which they use for balance and are said to be the most genetically divergent of all leopard subspecies.
According to ecological studies conducted in Oman their favorite prey is the Nubian Ibex, but they will eat many other animals including Mountain Gazelle, foxes, porcupines, Rock Hyrax, Cape Hares, partridges, and presumably Hamadryas Baboons. It is possible that Arabian Leopards are able to survive on smaller prey including lizards, snakes, small birds, and even insects such as migratory locusts, but the full diet of these resourceful predators has not been completely documented.
Habitat destruction and incursions into leopard habitat threaten leopards, but many are probably killed through direct persecution. Shooting, trapping, and poisoning of leopards is undocumented in Yemen but it probably still occurs, mainly because the unregulated hunting of leopard prey leads to livestock depredation and retaliatory killing. However, live trapping for sale to wealthy animal collectors in neighboring states probably poses the biggest threat to Yemen’s leopards today.
Preventing the extinction of the Arabian leopard in Yemen is possibly one of the most challenging conservation puzzles on the planet. One of our greatest challenges is countering the widespread perception that Yemen is a dangerous place and that it is unsafe to either work here or to invest conservation money in the country. A lack of knowledge due to a lack of capacity is something that we make a constant effort to overcome. Corruption is another problem; because money is often skimmed from project budgets by corrupt officials, some donors are reluctant to invest in projects here. Poverty is another huge challenge; there are so many humanitarian crises in Yemen, that conservation of the environment is not seen as a priority. Also, because of poverty, people try to earn a living any way they can including the exploitation of wildlife. Negative attitudes towards predators in Yemen (as in other countries) pose another serious challenge that is very difficult to reverse. Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, is finding enough financial support to keep the different facets of our conservation program moving in a positive direction.