Arabian Leopard

Arabian leopard (CC BY 2.5)The Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr), which is classified as critically endangered by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) since 1996, is a subspecies native to the Arabian Peninsula. Their number was less than 200 in 2006, and the population was still decreasing. Arabian leopard is the smallest subspecies.

It was tentatively affirmed as a distinct subspecies by genetic analysis from a single captive specimen from Israel of south Arabian origin, which appeared most closely related to the African Leopard.

Characteristics

Arabian leopard has pelage hues that vary from pale yellow to deep golden or tawny and are patterned with rosettes. At a weight of about 30 kg (66 lb) for the male and around 20 kg (44 lb) for female, the subspecies is much smaller than the African Leopard and other Asian subspecies.

Distribution and habitat

The animal’s geographic range is poorly understood but generally considered as limited to the Arabian Peninsula, including Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Until late 1960s, this cat was widely distributed in the Arabian Peninsula. It once existed in Haqel in the northern part of the Median Mountains, and in Hijaz and the Sarawat Mountains. It was also present in the northern Yemen highlands, in the mountains of Ras al-Khaimah, in the eastern region of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and in the Jabal Samhan and Dhofar mountains in Oman. There was a very small population in Israel’s Negev desert, estimated at 20 in the late 1970s.

In Saudi Arabia, the leopard’s habitat used to extend for about 1,700 km (1,100 mi) along the rugged arid to semi-arid mountains along the coast of the Red Sea. During 1998 to 2003, more than 65 records were obtained from informants, but subsequent camera trapping failed to confirm leopard presence.

A very few survive in the Negev Highlands and the Judean Desert while in the Arabian Peninsula leopards are known from just one location in Oman and one in Yemen. The largest established subpopulation lives in the Dhofar Mountains of southern Oman. Camera trapping has confirmed presence of 17 adult leopards since 1997 in the Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve. Presence of 9–11 leopards in the mountains that run west of the reserve to the Yemen border has also been confirmed.

These Leopards prefer and occupy remote and rugged high-mountain areas, which provide vantage points as well as security. Arabian leopards, in the dry and parched terrain of their habitat, need large territories in order to find enough food and water to survive. Like in other subspecies here also territories of males usually overlap those of one or more females, and are fiercely defended against intruding males, although spatial overlap between male ranges is common.

Behavior and Ecology

This subspecies concentrate on small-to-medium-sized prey such as Arabian tahr, mountain gazelle, hares, rock hyrax, birds, lizards and even insects. The carcass of a large prey is usually stored in caves or lairs but nothing was seen to be stored in trees, whereas Indian leopard and some other subspecies hide their kill in trees.

Despite the fact that males and females share a range, but still leopards are solitary animals. They come together only to mate, which is very vocal and lasts for about five days. After a gestation period of around 100 days, a litter of one to four cubs is born in a sheltered, secured and safe place, such as a small cave or under a rock overhang. During the first few weeks the female repeatedly moves her cubs to different hiding places to reduce their risk of being discovered. Cubs are blind when born. Their eyes open after about nine to ten days and they soon begin to explore their immediate surroundings, but they never venture away from the security of the den until at least four weeks old. Young are weaned at the age of 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.

Threats

Three confirmed separate sub-populations are there on the Arabian Peninsula with fewer than estimated 200 individuals. Like all other subspecies Arabian leopard too is threatened by poaching and retaliatory killing in defense of livestock, habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation and hunting of its prey.

The actual distribution of the subspecies in Arabia is not known accurately, mainly due to lack of ecological studies. Already in 1950s the numbers of leopards were decreasing drastically in Arabia. Some reports say the reason for decrease is killing by shepherds and villagers after these cats raid on their livestock making them an enemy of farmers. Killing for personal satisfaction and pride, traditional medicines and hides are other reasons. In addition, hunting of prey such as ibex and hyrax by local people; habitat fragmentation, especially in the Sarawat Mountains, has made the survival of leopard uncertain. Some animals are killed accidentally while eating poisoned carcasses intended for wolves and hyenas. The above factors have reduced leopard population drastically which necessitates immediate action to avoid further losses and extinction of this handsome animal.

Conservation

The subspecies is listed as Critically Endangered, as the effective population size is clearly below 250 mature individuals, with a continuing decline, and severely fragmented distribution with isolated subpopulations not larger than 50 mature individuals.

At least ten wild leopards were live-captured in Yemen since the early 1990s and sold to zoos; some have been placed in conservation breeding centers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

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