Dhofar: The Arabian leopard remains elusive in the Arabian peninsula and estimates put the current population at less than 200 cats from Yemen to Oman.
Despite these low numbers and lack of any recent sightings, dozens of holidaymakers with a keen interest in pushing research forward on this vulnerable species are drawn to the mountains of Salalah, southern Oman, each year.
Biosphere Expeditions take people off the typically beaten track to experience a country, its nature and the inhabitants in a way to benefit local research projects.
The Arabian leopard is a flagship species for Oman's mountain habitat. It once occurred throughout the mountainous regions of the UAE, Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. However, in the 1990s, the leopard became locally extinct in most areas of the Arabian peninsula and if viable populations remain, they are most likely to be found in the mountains of Oman and Yemen.
Over two fortnight-long expeditions in southern Dhofar, the participants covered 59 two-square-kilometre cells on foot and all-terrain vehicles within a region that included Wadi Ayoon and the villages of Ayoon, Titam, Qaffat and Aroqum in the Dhofar mountains.
In 1997, Oman's Office of the Adviser for Conservation of the Environment of the Diwan of the Royal Court began a survey of the Arabian Leopard in Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve in the Dhofar region, where a strong population has been shown to exist.
The areas outside Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve, however, are virtually unstudied and Biosphere Expeditions was tasked by the Omani Diwan of the Royal Court to survey these areas for leopard and its prey species.
Trained to look for signs
"The expedition is going on since 2006; we're looking to learn about the status of the Arabian leopard which is considered critically endangered. We have received people from all over the world for this project. They're trained at the beginning to look for signs of leopards," said Dr Marcelo Mazzolli, Conservation Biologist with Biosphere Expeditions.
Signs include paw prints, scratch marks, bones from prey and droppings. A vital part of the study involves droppings — or scat as it is called — and finding out where it came from. Scat is collected and the area's GPS coordinates recorded. "We still have to wait for the analysis of scat collected to verify the presence of leopard through ‘molecular scatology', the process by which DNA is extracted from scat samples to identify species or individuals within species," said Mazzolli.
Species in the study area and scat samples could belong to the Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr), caracal (Caracal caracal), grey wolf (Canis lupus), striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena), Arabian tahr (Hemitragus jayakari) and Arabian gazelle (Gazella gazella).
Few groups actually spot any leopards but from field research and years of experience, Mazzolli has observed a gradient between wolves in the northern part of the study area (Wadi Ayoon) and hyenas that predominate towards the southeast or the cliffs facing the Salalah plains.
"This gradient is certainly due to the monsoon rains that reach these southern slopes, and also due to a higher human concentration in this region… These differences will be confronted in the future with data on the presence of the Arabian leopard to verify for any relationship - that is, if any of these differences in the predominance of several species may relate to the presence or absence of leopards."
NO MARBLE BATHROOMS
Camping for two weeks with no running water or electricity in hot, dusty conditions is not for the faint-hearted. What keeps everybody going, aside from a passion for conservation, is the hope of catching a glimpse of the Arabian leopard — at least from one of the camera traps set up every few days.
Berit Askheim, 51, a Norwegian living in Germany, is not shy of deserts and has camel-trekked through the Sinai and Tunisian deserts. However this was her first Biosphere Expedition.
"I have taken vacation trips to Arab countries but in this type of trip you feel like you are giving something back," said Askheim. "We do a lot of walking in some steep valleys, follow trails looking for tracks and scat [droppings]. You have to trust the GPS and position your camera traps somewhere viable — you really feel like you want to deliver."
For Bjorn Streyer, 35, a customs officer from Germany, coming to Oman was a dream come true. As a competition winner he was flown out to take
part in the expedition free of charge. "I have always wanted to go to the desert and see what it feels like. I entered the competition in January 2010 and learnt I had won in December. It is the dream of my life to be here," said Streyer.
"I love nature and I want to spend as much time in it as possible. I hope my children will also experience things like this. I take them to the forest near our home and we dig up the earth and look at the worms and bugs, I want them to understand nature as well." Streyer shunned the tents and opted instead to sleep under the stars every night he spent in Wadi Ayoon.
Toby Whaley, 55, a Briton living in Germany, ended up in Oman after he had to cancel his Red Sea cruise when the Egyptian uprising erupted on January 25.
"I always had Biosphere in my shortlist… you have to be healthy for the walking up and down the wadis, you have to like adventure and an outdoor lifestyle. Interest in wildlife and nature should be a priority," he said.
Where is the Arabian Leopard?
The Arabian leopard is the largest surviving cat species of Arabia. Listed as critically endangered in the IUCN list of threatened species, it is on Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which bans international trade in listed animals.
Local people living in and around Wadi Ayoon are keen to tell stories of sightings and stories of hunted livestock - possibly by leopards, hyenas or wolves?
Saeed Sulaiman Al Habsi, marketing officer from Shell — a key sponsor of the expeditions — helped participants by going out on community interviews and helping with translation.
"The local people are happy to know that efforts to research the leopard are going on. They welcome us into their homes and allow us to ask questions about the environment they live in… but the last attack on livestock was by wolves four years ago."
DID YOU KNOW
90% of the Arabian leopard population declined at the beginning of the 19th century in Saudi Arabia.