Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr)
|Size||Head-and-body length: 1.3 m (2)|
Male weight: 30 kg (4)
Female weight: 20 kg (4)
The Arabian leopard is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed under Appendix I of CITES, at the species level (3).
The Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr) is the largest and most powerfully built of all Arabian cats, but is thought to be the smallest of the 15 leopard subspecies (5) (6). Apart from its substantially smaller size, this subspecies can be distinguished from its African and Asian counterparts by its paler overall colour (4). Indeed, the more typical deep golden-yellow colour only exists along the animal’s back, whilst the rest of the body fades to beige or greyish-white (4) (5). The body is almost entirely interspersed with widely-spaced black rosettes and spots characteristic of the species, which help to camouflage the cat in the bare, rocky terrain in which it lives (2) (5) (6). The long tail is used for balance when climbing or reclining in trees (6). Sexes look alike, but males are generally larger than females (5).
Formerly common throughout the Arabian Peninsula, only small scattered Arabian leopard populations now remain. A few individuals are confined to the Negev Desert in the north of Arabia, and in the south, populations are known from just one location in the Republic of Yemen and one in the Sultanate of Oman (7).
The Arabian leopard is found in rugged mountains, preferably where permanent water sources occur (6).
In the arid terrain of their habitat, Arabian leopards require large territories in order to find enough food and water to survive (4) (6). The male’s territory usually overlaps those of one or more females, and is fiercely defended against other intruding males (4), although spatial overlap between male ranges is common (6). Despite males and females sharing a range, they are solitary animals, only coming together to mate, which is very vocal and lasts for approximately five days (4) (5). After a gestation period of around 100 days, a litter of one to four cubs are born in a sheltered area, such as a small cave or under a rock overhang (4) (5). During the first few weeks the female frequently moves her cubs to different hiding places to reduce their risk of being discovered (4). Although young open their eyes after about nine to ten days and begin to explore their immediate surroundings (5), they will not venture from the security of the den until at least four weeks old (6). Young are weaned by three months but remain with their mother for up to two years whilst they learn the skills necessary to hunt and survive on their own (4) (6).
Traditional prey of the Arabian leopard include species such as the Arabian tahr (Hemitragus jayakari), mountain gazelle (Gazella gazella), Nubian ibex (Capra nubiana), Cape hare (Lepus capensis cheesmani) and rock hyrax (Procavia capensis), but in some areas these species have declined so dramatically due to hunting and overgrazing that the leopards have been forced to occasionally prey upon domestic stock, bringing them into direct conflict with man (4) (5) (6) (8). Hunting usually occurs around dawn and dusk, thereby avoiding the midday heat (4) (9).
The Arabian leopard clings to a desperately precarious existence. With an official estimate of probably no more than 250 mature individuals, and a declining trend, this cat edges ever closer to the jaws of extinction (6). Habitat loss poses a serious threat, largely as the result of overgrazing by livestock (2), which has also contributed to the depletion of the leopard’s prey base (7). Hunting, of both the leopard and its prey, has also had a dramatic impact on the cat’s survival, contributing to it becoming one of the rarest animals in the world today (4). The leopards in Yemen are under particular pressure from hunting, persecution from local shepherds and capture for trade (7), threats that are thought to be the main contributors to the species’ demise (8). Sadly, significant conflict arises from many people considering the leopard to be a threat to their domestic stock (8), with leopards probably often being blamed for kills by wolves and unexplained livestock losses (9).
Fortunately, the situation is much more hopeful in Oman than in Yemen, with the leopards of the Dhofar Mountains benefiting from comprehensive conservation measures (8). The first significant step to conserve the Arabian leopard was taken in 1985 when the region’s first captive breeding group was established at the Omani Mammal Breeding Centre in Muscat (8). Since then, captive breeding efforts at a number of institutions have been successful, with several cubs born at the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. Such captive breeding programmes are essential in maintaining genetic diversity and saving this species from extinction (4). Nevertheless, these successes need to be matched by equal successes in conservation efforts
To this end, a surge in conservation effort erupted in 1993 in response to a particularly heavy spate of killing by hunters in the early 1990s. This included the establishment of the Arabian Leopard Trust, which aimed to protect the leopard, its mountain habitat and Arabian wildlife in general (4). In 1997, another significant step was taken when Jabal Samhan, part of the Dhofar Mountains in Oman, was declared a Nature Reserve, increasing the level of protection afforded to the leopard and its habitat (8). In the same year, the Arabian Leopard Survey was launched, followed subsequently by various field surveys, camera-trapping and tracking of leopards fitted with GPS satellite collars, not only revealing vital information on the ecology of this species but helping to keep this flagship species in the pubic eye (8). In Oman the leopard is also legally protected from hunting and capture, with stiff penalties if caught involving imprisonment and a fine (8).
Despite all these conservation measures, the Arabian leopard still has dangerously low numbers and is extremely vulnerable to the threat of extinction. The most important identified need of this unique cat is to urgently safeguard it and its prey species in the Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve, possibly the last viable refuge of the species (9). For this to be successful in the long term, conservationists face the challenge of minimising human damage to the area, reducing human-leopard conflict, and most significantly, making the reserve benefit the local people economically, a powerful incentive to the surrounding communities to protect their rare and unique native fauna (8) (9).
For more information on the Arabian leopard:
- Hellyer, P. & Aspinall, S. (2005) The Emirates: A Natural History. Trident Press Limited, United Arab Emirates.
Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife in Sharjah:
Authenticated (27/06/2006) by Dr. Andrew Spalton, Office of the Advisor for Conservation of the Environment, Diwan of Royal Court Muscat, Sultanate of Oman.
- Gestation: the state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
- In-situ: in its original or natural position or range.
- Subspecies: a population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
- Territory: an area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.
IUCN Red List (June, 2006)
BBC Online: Science and Nature (April, 2006)
UAE Interact: Comprehensive news and information on the United Arab Emirates (April, 2006)
CITES (January, 2006)
Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife in Sharjah (April, 2006)
- Hellyer, P. and Aspinall, S. (2005) The Emirates: A Natural History. Trident Press Limited, United Arab Emirates.
- Spalton, J.A. and Al Hikmani, H.M. (1/1/0001 12:00:00 AM) The leopard Panthera pardus in the Arabian Peninsula; distribution and sub-species status. Cat News (IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group Newsletter),.
- Spalton, J.A., Al Hikmani, H.M., Jahdhami, M.H., Ibrahim, A.A.A., Bait Said, A.S. and Willis, D. (1/1/0001 12:00:00 AM) STATUS REPORT FOR THE ARABIAN LEOPARD Panthera pardus nimr IN THE SULTANATE OF OMAN. Cat News (IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group Newsletter),.
- Spalton, J.A., Al Hikmani, H.M., Willis, D. and Bait Said, A.S. (2006) Endangered Arabian leopards Panthera pardus nimr persist in the Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve, Sultanate of Oman. Oryx, 40(3): 1 - 10.