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Leopard spotting

Cover On a conservation holiday in the Dhofar mountains, John Henzell helps with the unglamorous but vital work of saving the last of Oman's Arabian wildcats.

The battle to save the Arabian leopard from extinction in the wild can be called many things: crucial, worthy, pivotal and righteous. Just don't call it glamorous. I'm learning just how unglamorous while sheltering in the shade of a thorn-covered tree in a dusty wadi in the Dhofar mountains of southern Oman, a range that forms the critically endangered species' last stronghold after decades of retreat from a habitat that once stretched as far as Palestine and Mussandam. Alongside me are eight enthusiasts who have each paid US$2,100 (Dh6,785) to the non-profit conservation group Biosphere Expeditions to spend their holiday volunteering in a research project. Leading us is Tessa McGregor, a big cat specialist who is doing her best to lower our expectations about what we will encounter over the next two weeks because this is a research project, not a wildlife-spotting tour.

The chance of actually seeing a leopard are about as close to zero as it's possible to get, and whether or not our contribution will help avert permanent extinction in the wild is uncertain. Tessa then describes what we'll be collecting from the wadis and mountains of the western Dhofar mountains through a series of polite euphemisms: "sign", "scat" and "droppings". We will also be monitoring motion-triggered cameras posted in remote locations, doing an analysis of animal tracks, conducting population censuses of prey animals and interviewing local villagers - a process that involves tea and hospitality while asking about recent wildlife sightings - but she wanted us under no illusion about one of the key roles: "You'll come back with bags and bags of scat." We get instructions on what the different species' scat looks like and even "scat etiquette", which involves wearing gloves while bagging suspected leopard droppings to avoid contamination.

I remember thinking to myself at this point that this is truly one of the oddest holidays I've ever been on. But for all the lack of glamour, everything we are about to do has a purpose. The leopard scat, for example, will be subjected to DNA analysis to ensure that it is leopard and, if so, how many different animals there are and the degree to which they are related to one another. The gloves are to ensure that we don't contaminate it with our own DNA. None of this seems to faze those around me. They run the gamut of demographics ranging from an octogenarian Californian retiree who has done dozens of these kinds of trips to a fresh-faced Australian graphic designer on her first. Their conservation experience ranges from never having been camping before to spending months in the field doing research. But almost all of them voice a similar message about why they've travelled to Salalah to join this expedition: they want to give something back to conservation rather than having a more traditional holiday.

For the last 11 years Biosphere Expeditions has provided the logistics so that volunteers like these could help research teams doing conservation work around the world without the former draining scarce funds from the latter. In this case, they're helping the Diwan of the Royal Court, which has taken on the Arabian leopard's plight as one of its flagship programmes. By providing leaders, transport (Land Rover provided three brand-new LR3s and Shell Oman provides petrol) and a spartan but comfortable base camp (bucket showers and pit toilets but with a talented Bangladeshi cook to provide breakfast and dinner), Biosphere Expeditions provide nearly a dozen helpers to fill in some of the yawning gaps in knowledge. Thanks to the leopards' friends in high places in the Omani royal court, their main base in the eastern end of the Dhofar mountains behind Salalah has been turned into the Jebel Samhan Nature Reserve, created specifically to safeguard the leopard's habitat. But almost all the information about the leopard is from that area. Our focus is on the western edge of the mountains, closer to the Yemen border, about which very little is known. Here, the terrain varies from barren plateaux featuring camel-ravaged frankincense trees to dry and dusty wadis with occasional waterholes. Closer to the coast, the effect of the seasonal monsoon makes this the most forested part of the Arabian peninsula, and it's this region which has provided the most promising results about the presence of leopards.

Tessa, a veteran of big cat research projects ranging from the Sundarban tigers of the Ganges delta to the snow leopards of the Siberian Altai Mountains, explains that this region is crucial to the leopards' viability. "Big cats need lots of space. It's estimated that each one's territory is 200 square kilometres," she explains. "Even if you'd protected the whole of Jebel Samhan, it's too small to have a viable population in the future. They need to be able to go all the way to where we are here." The viability of the population is something about which she's unfortunately already aware through previous research trips. The Arabian leopard is extinct in most of the Hajar mountains that stretch between Musandam and Muscat but a tiny population still clings on in the northernmost section near the UAE-Oman border in Ras al Khaimah and Fujairah. "In Mussandam, there were some leopards there and we did find some signs of leopard but all the prey animals are gone," Tessa explains. "Leopards need ungulates - large prey like ibex and gazelle - but there aren't any, just feral goats. "We found some fresh pug (paw) marks and we heard leopard but even if there were two or three, really the population there is finished. "That makes ungulates so important. Poaching (leopards) isn't a big big problem but poaching of their prey animals is." Tessa does not want to be drawn on total population of the leopards or how many are needed for a sustainable population but other estimates say there are only 200 left in the wild. It's the second most threatened big cat in the world and is deemed to be critically endangered, one short step away from being deemed extinct in the wild. In western Dhofar they have very little idea about either the prey animals or indeed the leopards. The project last year found only a few old signs of leopards' presence, raising the prospect that the population is in steep decline in this part of the range. Just in case expectations were not already low enough, Tessa raises the prospect of coming back empty-handed from a scat-gathering expedition but insisted that finding nothing is still pivotal information. "When you're traipsing around and finding nothing you feel like, 'What am I doing?' But it's very important," she says. "Most of the work has still to be done. There's really no baseline. There are so many unanswered questions." It would take a particularly congenial volunteer to enjoy spending their money and holiday proving that the leopards are doomed to functional extinction in the wild, but this year the first group of volunteers found signs only a few days old of several animals resident in a forested area near the Yemen border. Just how little is known about the Arabian leopard is shown by the belief that they do not scrape trees with their claws to mark their territory, a finding that had to be reversed just two weeks before our trip when the Biosphere volunteers found signs that they did. The interconnectedness and interdependence of all the animals in the ecosystem are why Tessa spends the first day acquainting us with the tracks and scat of all the animals in the area. Even if we find leopard tracks, the population will be in deep trouble if we find few signs of ibex, hyrax and gazelles. The truth is that tracking is as much an art as a science and it takes time for your eye to adjust to the signs. One of the few similarities of this disparate group is that almost all work in sedentary office jobs and live in cities. Just how much there was to adjust is demonstrated by Leslie, a previous Biosphere leader who has joined the volunteers as a break before completing her PhD dissertation on reptiles. Approaching a thorn-laden acacia, she bursts into: "Look! A gecko!" And it takes the rest of us an embarrassing amount of time to even see the thumb-length reptile she'd spotted in seconds, even though we know it's there and where to look. And so it is with the leopard sign, where in anything other than ideal conditions, I find myself completely incapable of differentiating between leopard and other pawed creatures like the striped hyena or Arabian wolf. There's the gnawing concern that the only thing worse than the paucity of information about leopards in this part of the Dhofar is the presence of information which turns out to be untrustworthy. So far this trip is reinforcing my cynical view about volunteer holidays. Most seemed to involve visits to third-world villages by westerners who do half as much work as the locals and expect twice as much luxury, all the while feeling good about their input while making one-tenth of the contribution they would have achieved by staying at home and donating the money they spent on the tour and their flight. But after listening longer to Tessa's explanation of the volunteers' input, my view softens. Besides creating a new series of ambassadors who will take their message home to Britain, Germany, Australia, Sweden, the US and Oman, there are other effects of our presence. The reality is that the locals begin to look at the issue more seriously if they see a dozen highly paid and qualified westerners in the region putting their time and energy into the local wildlife. Still my concern about my own tracking ability is such that I'm relieved when we spend the first day visiting a waterhole at the head of our wadi, the location of several of motion-triggered cameras but seemingly too close to the village of Ayuun for there to be much chance of finding signs of the notoriously human-shy leopards. I'm even more relieved when Tessa is joined by Khalid al Hikmani, who grew up in the mountain villages of the Dhofar and who now works with the leopard protection team as a field officer. Mohammed, a ranger with the Environment Ministry, also joins us. Khalid is one of two boys who joined the programme through a chance encounter with an Australian who was in the mountains photographing the wildlife, became lost and emerged at their remote village. Both were youths at the time but through him became fascinated by the leopards and, once they'd completed their schooling, joined the Diwan conservation team. The other youth, Hadi al Hikmani, is away in Britain studying for a BSc in biology, gaining the formal skills to enable him to do his work better. Khalid's enthusiasm for his job is demonstrated about 20 minutes into the tour when we reach the site of the first motion-activated camera, sited in a cave perfect for leopards to take shelter from the midday heat while being able to survey their domains. As we approach, the camera is nowhere to be seen. Previously this camera has captured hunters going past and the fear is they'd stolen it to hide poaching. Khalid and Mohammed's body language says it all - they seem dejected and downcast until the camera is found lying at the bottom of its mounting post, having been dislodged by an amorous or aggressive porcupine. It's taken nine photos since the last visit and the memory card shows the interfering porcupine but also a honey badger, fox and a striped hyena. Corroborating evidence is found in the paw- and hoof-prints in the dust nearby and slowly familiarity allows an increasing confidence in our ability to correctly identify tracks. My concerns about whether we should be here fade. As we make our way down the wadi bed, every time a twist of the valley provides a new vista Tessa is out with her binoculars scanning the slopes for the presence of ibex and gazelle. As the wadi briefly closes in, Khalid and Mohammed scramble up to precarious ledges to look for leopard paw prints, emerging instead with the skull of a hyrax, a marmot-like animal which is one of the leopard's prey species. Two more camera sites yield no startling results, and we head back to camp. Sitting around the fire that evening, reviewing the tally of animals detected is surprising considering the only live mammal we'd seen all day had been a pair of camels. Between the cameras, tracks in the dust, skulls and, of course, scat, we've shown the presence of porcupine, striped hyena, Arabian wolf, red fox, Blandford's fox, Arabian gazelle, Nubian ibex, hyrax, honeybadger and camel. The finds in the days that follow make those pale by comparison. In an adjoining valley to the wadi in which base camp is located, Tessa finds a ledge bearing an old but clear leopard paw print, the closest sign of leopard to the main wadi. And in that news I begin to understand why volunteering for a conservation campaign can become so compelling. jhenzell@thenational.ae

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