Needle in a Haystack: Finding the Elusive Arabian Leopard

By Carolyn Dunford, Ph.D.
Data Analyst

Leopard South Africa
©PANTHERA

Are we looking in the right spot? In the vast, arid landscape of Saudi Arabia, leopards have roamed for hundreds of years. Now, they are Critically Endangered, with just 150 estimated to be left in the wild. The last one sighted in Saudi Arabia was found dead in 2014, poisoned by a local farmer. So, in 2020, Panthera and the Royal Commission for AlUla established the Arabian Leopard Initiative to locate and conserve any remaining leopards in the country. The first challenge was to find them. Where do you start looking when they could be anywhere in a 400,000 square kilometer range? 

Historically, Arabian leopards lived along the length of the western coast of Saudi Arabia. This vast region consists of steep escarpments with deep wadis (valleys), as well as rocky desert plains. Surveying this entire range would be impossible — we needed to narrow down our search area to regions that are most likely to be home to leopards.  To do this, we had to understand what factors affect where leopards live. And to do that, we needed data from other leopards that live in similar arid landscapes.

Landscape 1
©CAROLYN DUNFORD

We found the answer in South Africa. Leopards in South Africa are one of the best-studied populations in the world. While some do live in lush savanna woodlands, some live in much drier, mountainous areas that are comparable to Arabian mountains. Working with researchers from The Cape Leopard Trust, we used a long-term dataset from the dry Cederberg region to see what factors affected leopard habitat selection. 

Using GPS data from 14 leopards, we found that they preferred to use areas that were away from human settlements and roads, had more vegetation and had terrain that was not too steep and not too high in elevation. To make sure our predictions could be used to map potential leopard habitat in Saudi Arabia, we checked whether they could be used in another dry region of South Africa, the Little Karoo. We predicted where leopards would go and compared that with GPS data from three leopards to see if we were correct. We also tested our predictions for Arabian leopards from Oman.  In Oman, there is a stronghold of around 30 Arabian leopards that live in the coastal mountains. Our partners from the Diwan of Royal Court in Oman provided GPS data from two of them. In all our tests, our predictions were highly successful at identifying areas where these leopards would select, giving us great confidence that our predictions would work well in Saudi Arabia.

Landscape 2
©CAROLYN DUNFORD

We could finally use our predictions to narrow down areas of Saudi Arabia where we would most likely find Arabian leopards. We identified four distinct areas that contained the right habitat to host a population of Arabian leopards. Using the average home range size, these areas could host at least 10 females, and one area in the southwestern mountains could host up to 289! We also identified areas that might act as corridors to connect habitat patches. While there were some promising connecting corridors, the distances between the patches are probably too large for leopards to actually travel between sites. The largest potential habitat site is, however, capable of sustaining enough leopards to be viable on its own.  

Excitingly, there is enough potential habitat in Saudi Arabia to host a theoretical population of over 300 female leopards! When including males, whose territories overlap with females, the actual number of leopards that this landscape could hold is considerably higher.

Landscape 3
©CAROLYN DUNFORD

While this is all very promising, there are some limitations to our modeling. There is no reliable estimate of the number of livestock that roam the wild areas of Saudi Arabia. Sheep, goats, donkeys and camels are abundant and decrease the vegetation available to wild prey species. Urbanization and habitat loss is also on the rise, and could threaten the identified habitat patches. These factors will need to be monitored and managed if the habitats we found are going to be suitable for leopards in the long run.

For now, we can push on. We are deploying hundreds of camera traps at these sites and throughout the connecting corridors in Saudi Arabia. Only time will tell whether Arabian leopards still live in this landscape, but this is the largest effort to find them in history. And now, we are looking in the right places.

Please read the original research this piece is based upon.