Q&A: Arabian Leopards

By Panthera

Arabian leopard

Panthera supports the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) and their work in Saudi Arabia to conserve this elusive cat. We spoke with Panthera’s Leopard Program Director, Dr. Gareth Mann, and Arabian Leopard Initiative Coordinator, David Mills, to discuss the threats this Critically Endangered cat faces and what we are doing to help save it. 

Why are populations of Arabian leopards depleted — with only an estimated 200 left in the wild?

It is likely that Arabian leopards were always quite rare due to the harsh desert environments in which they live. In a landscape like this, they require large territories in order to access enough prey to sustain themselves. This means that they are extremely vulnerable to changes in land-use, particularly expansion of urban and farming areas. Developments in infrastructure, including the construction of new roads and dams, also opened up large areas of formerly undisturbed mountain habitat to development. This increased human footprint likely also coincided with greater rates of conflict, as new areas became available to livestock farmers, and consequently an increase in the persecution of leopards and other large carnivores. These factors have led to the decline and local extinction of Arabian leopards across much of their historical range. 

Have Arabian leopards’ prey population sizes started to stabilize? 

Our initial surveys of leopard habitat in Saudi Arabia found extremely low numbers of natural prey. Improving these prey numbers is crucial to the conservation of Arabian leopards, but requires a holistic approach; prey species such as ibex, gazelle and rock hyrax require sufficient grazing as well as protection from poaching. Vegetation recovers slowly in desert environments, so this will be a long process. Panthera and RCU (Royal Commission for AlUla) are working together to better protect and restore leopard habitat, allowing for the natural recovery of prey species. These efforts can be supplemented with reintroductions when required. Although prey numbers are still relatively low, we hope to see sustained growth over the next few years. 

What is the required range size for Arabian leopards? Where are their strongholds? 

Today we know of only one true stronghold of Arabian leopards, which is in the Dhofar mountains of southern Oman. There have been recent sightings of leopards in Yemen too, but little is known about the status of the Yemeni population. Dhofar is the only area in which Arabian leopards have been collared, but this study obtained data from only two individuals, one male and one female. The male had a home range of just over 208 km ², while the female’s home range was 101 km ². It’s likely that some Arabian leopards may have larger ranges, particularly in more arid areas. 

African leopards in Namibia had average home range sizes of 478 km ² for males and 193 km ² for females, and it is quite possible that Arabian leopards would cover similar distances in some areas. 

What's being done to mitigate conflict in the mountain habitats they share with people? 

In Oman, a compensation scheme has been put in place in which people are paid for any livestock lost to leopards. In Saudi Arabia, Panthera and RCU are working with local communities to reduce conflict with large carnivores. These may include helping to construct predator-proof enclosures and training farmers on how better to protect their livestock using techniques used to increase coexistence in human-wildlife interface zones around the world, such as livestock guardian dogs and visual and auditory deterrents. Although Arabian leopards have not been detected in the wild in Saudi Arabia recently, Arabian wolves are a major problem for many farmers. By putting measures in place to reduce conflict with wolves, we hope to prepare local communities for the eventual reintroduction of leopards. 

What steps are Panthera and RCU taking to eventually return Arabian leopards to the wild? 

Successfully introducing captive-bred cats to the wild is extremely difficult, but recent experiences with Iberian lynx and Persian leopards show that it is possible. Panthera and RCU have adopted a two-pronged approach to restore leopards to the wild areas of Saudi Arabia. Firstly, we have identified areas where leopards could potentially be reintroduced. Over the next eight years, we will work together to improve the habitat quality and wild prey numbers within these areas. Secondly, we are expanding and improving the Arabian leopard breeding facilities in Saudi Arabia, to not only increase the population of leopards, but also to train leopards to survive in the wild ahead of their eventual reintroduction.  

What can I do to help Arabian leopards? 

For the smallest leopard subspecies, even the smallest contribution can help! Helping to raise awareness by telling your friends about Arabian leopards and liking or sharing content related to Arabian leopards from @Pantheracats and @RCU_SA on social media is a great start. Making a donation to Panthera can also help further our efforts to protect Arabian leopards and other wild cats. Finally, participating in events like the annual Catwalk helps raise awareness about Arabian leopards. No matter what you decide, we look forward to bringing you along on this journey toward restoring Arabian leopards to their rightful place in the wild! 

Learn more about the Arabian Leopard Initiative