Murad Mohamed, a scrawny 27 year-old biology graduate, peers through a pair of dusty binoculars, searching for something few even know exists in Yemen: the Arabian leopard, one of the Middle East’s most iconic species—and one of the world’s most endangered animals.
A field researcher for the Foundation for the Protection of the Arabian Leopard in Yemen (FPALY), Mohamed is leading the first leopard survey of its kind in Raymah, a fertile region in the craggy Haraz Mountains located about 60 miles southwest of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. FPALY’s Raymah survey -- one of only a handful of concerted efforts in history to locate the Arabian leopard in Yemen -- is just one of the half-dozen the foundation has already undertaken during its four years as an organization. With their research, they aim to reverse the animal’s rapidly declining presence—not just in Yemen but in its entire, decimated former habitat.
Roughly one-third the size of most other leopards, the 50-pound Arabian subspecies is by far the smallest—perfect for maneuvering around the rocky South Arabian landscape. It features an unusually pale coat and an almost comically sized tail that can reach three and a half feet long. Six years ago, the International Union for Conservation of Nature estimated that less than 250 remain in the world.
Until the late 1960s, the Arabian leopard thrived throughout the entire Arabian Peninsula, stalking its arable, mountainous rim, but today the leopard is extinct in almost all of its former territory, including Jordan, the Egyptian Sinai, and the United Arab Emirates. The last two leopards recorded in Saudi Arabia were poisoned in 2007 because of their perceived threat to crops. And the circumstances for the few remaining in Israel are no better—the half-dozen or so leopards believed to still roam the Negev Highlands are so hemmed in by human development that almost no hope remains for their long-term survival.
This leaves the future of this critically endangered species in the hands of just Oman and Yemen. In 1997, Oman established the Jebel Samhan Nature Reserve, a 3,000-square-mile area in the country’s western Dhofar region where the country’s 30 known leopards—as well as caracals, wolves, and other rare animals—are protected and tracked.
Yemen, however, is a different story. Other than a few scientists and organizations parachuting into the country over the years, FPALY is about the only show in town when it comes to Arabian leopard conservation. That means Mohamed and his team are one of the few substantive forces in Yemen keeping the top of the country’s animal food chain from complete extinction.
But aside from a more limited support structure for conservation than in neighboring Oman, FPALY also has a laundry list of obstacles to contend with in Yemen, including maddening government bureaucracy, murky land ownership philosophies, a collapsing natural ecosystem, and extremist-plagued regions.
For Mohamed and the rest of FPALY, the question is this: how to save a critically endangered animal when its few remaining habitats intersect with some of the country’s most socially, politically, and environmentally troubled—not to mention ungovernable—regions?
I first met David Stanton, the founder of FPALY, in April 2012, the day after the deadliest bombing in the history of Yemen’s capital on an expedition to spot the elusive Amethyst Starling, a purple-winged bird. Amid a clutter of bulky telescopes, I sat in the backseat of his mud-splattered Camry as we inched through hastily constructed roadblocks. Alert and tense, I listened to him speak breathlessly about the dazzling bird as we crept along, skirting blood still freshly spattered on the roadway.
Because of the attack, we could barely leave the capital that day. Instead, Stanton devised a plan to drive south toward Wadi Hamel -- a small valley close enough to the capital to bypass the government’s travel restrictions -- in order to catch a glimpse of the starling.
In 2008, Stanton quit his job as a science teacher in Sana’a, navigated Yemen’s red tape, and established FPALY in a country with little history of conservation—all to save an animal about 32 times rarer than the Bengal tiger.
His fixation on the Arabian leopard comes after two decades of attempting to get his teenaged students interested in the importance of nature.
For Stanton, the leopard—the largest predatory in the country—is a critical link in Yemen’s environment, which is weakening from soil erosion, overgrazing, desertification, and human development.
Though we didn’t get to see the starling that day, Wadi Hamel was brimming with wildlife nonetheless.
“Yemen doesn’t have to be a trope. It’s not just dust here. We just need to be able to get around,” he said. But in a country with a government often ridiculed for its lackadaisical approach to work—that’s easier said than done. Earlier this month, when Yemen was the final Arab country to change its weekend from Thursday and Friday to Friday and Saturday, in order to better align with the global market, Turkey’s ambassador to Yemen tweeted, “Welcomed weekend change in Yemen…but afraid that will practically become Thursday&Friday&Saturday.”
“Mobility and red tape are both issues we face,” Mohammed Al-Duais, a professor of biology at Yemen’s Ibb University, said. Al-Duais was appointed FPALY’s associate director and took over the group’s day-to-day operations from Stanton in late 2012.
As FPALY grew, it devised an ambitious plan to pump up its credibility and visibility: collect irrefutable proof of the Arabian leopard in its natural habitat in Yemen, a feat that—save for the evidence left by illegal animal trappers—hadn’t been accomplished in Yemen in decades. The foundation searched for dens, scat, and footprints and laid down camera traps -- remotely monitored cameras with motion sensors acting as a photographic triggers.
But with limited funds and travel restrictions, cameras would go months without being checked. So in January 2011, as Mohamed and other researchers scanned through thousands of pictures from the Hawf region in remote eastern Yemen, no one at FPALY could quite believe that—hidden amid a series of pictures of donkey butts, dancing honey badgers, and lazy porcupines—they would scroll onto the first recorded photograph of the Arabian leopard in the wild in Yemen.
“FPALY was the first organization to do anything like this,” Abdulrahman Al-Eryani, Yemen’s former Minister of Water & Environment said. He co-sponsored a bill to declare the Arabian leopard Yemen’s national animal at the behest of Stanton and FPALY. Encouraged by the foundation’s work and passion, he even joined as a member of their board of trustees. “Those photographers were a big day in history, not just for the leopard but for the country of Yemen,” he said. But even with a little headway and some government support, other obstacles remained.
In March 2008, Stanton, Al-Eryani, and a small group of colleagues visited an isolated community in Amran to speak with villagers about a possible leopard sanctuary in the area. The governorate was frequently deemed inaccessible for security reasons, so the group drove the bumpy road back home to Sana’a that night pleased that the meeting had gone well, ending in a lavish mutton feast with the town’s elders.
But when they returned a few months later to check their camera traps, a band of a dozen armed teenagers blocked the group’s entrance into the valley, and men higher up the hill fired off warning shots. The team soon discovered that the camera traps had been stolen and, back in the village, they learned that a few families in the area were worried that a sanctuary meant that a group from outside was staking a claim to the valley’s ownership.
And just like that, the small opposition—backed by a child army—managed to end FPALY’s work in Amran. Five years later, the deteriorated security situation in the Wada’a Valley still prevents FPALY from conducting a conclusive leopard survey in the area.
And today, two years since their success in Hawf, FPALY has been unable to capture any more photos of the Arabian leopard in Yemen. But evidence of the animal’s presence in several areas of the country still persists. And though sometimes it is strictly anecdotal—like stories of someone’s livestock being attacked in a far-off town—just as frequently, the proof is disturbingly apparent—like grainy photos sent in of what looks like Arabian leopard fur for sale in some market.
But for the vast majority of Yemenis, bigger problems loom. For many, it’s difficult to understand why the fate of one type of leopard bears any relationship to the state of the country. But even more troublingly, some people have understood that there’s money to be extracted from poaching.
Today Yemen faces environmental ruin, with exhausted aquifers, unchecked deforestation, and rapid urbanization that aims to support a population expected to double in just over two decades. For a majority of the population, finding the next meal is the only thing that matters.
“It’s about convincing people that equilibrium is important for all, but it must be explained delicately,” Al-Duais said. He uses an outbreak of monkeys near the Western forest of Bura’a that damaged crops earlier this year as an example of imbalance. Without natural predators like the Arabian leopard, lesser creatures take over an area and present unknowable consequences. “We need to show that preserving all of nature is for the long-term benefit of everyone,” Al-Duais says.
Aside from being feared for their danger to humans and livestock, the leopards are also poached for their rare pelts.
In 2011, a group of tribesman captured two Arabian leopards outside of Lawdar, a small town in the southwest governorate of Abyan, where Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula declared control earlier in the year. With a shattered economy, little financial recourse, and no education about the environment, the prospect of making money by selling the animal to a nearby middleman—who would in turn pass it on into the thriving East Africa/Gulf animal trade—proved enticing.
One of the leopards soon died, but the other remains in a precarious condition. After they saw a YouTube video of the diminutive creature snarling at the camera from behind a chicken-fence cage—its battered forehead and stump of a leg the color and texture of ground beef—FPALY went to work trying to secure the leopard’s freedom. Though they fiercely lobbied local councils and governors, the sheikh holding the leopard boasted of his intention to sell the animal and admitted to selling other Arabian leopards in the past.
The foundation soon became caught in an exasperating struggle. To pay the “owner” of the leopard would set a dangerous precedent—a lesson that conservationists had already learned in Yemen. In 1994, the UAE-based Arabian Leopard Trust laid down a hefty purchasing price on a captive Arabian leopard displayed in the center square of Yemen’s capital in order to free the animal. The $3,000 the owner made was certainly more than the two cents he was charging passersby to poke the animal with a stick. After word spread of the arrangement, FPALY estimates that as many as a dozen other leopards were trapped in Yemen with the intention of selling them.
“If people heard about a deal made … the rest of Yemen’s leopards could be gone in a year,” Al-Eryani said.
But he also knows that the alternative—lobbying the government to forcibly remove the leopard—could set off a tribal blood feud that could last for years.
It’s an uphill slog, but FPALY has big plans for the future of leopards in Yemen. Al-Eryani dreams of one day starting an ecotourism company that would take Yemenis through their ancestral valleys with a realistic hope of catching a glimpse of the creatures. He pictures a future where his children’s children might one day hear the same calls of the leopard that he once heard drifting across the valley.
“At FPALY, we are all stubborn,” Al-Eryani said, laughing. “But in Yemen, sometimes stubbornness is the best engine to get anything done here.”