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.