Abu Dhabi // The fate of one of the nation's most endangered species, the Arabian leopard, remains a mystery. Once prolific across the Gulf, today the majestic cats are clinging to survival. Whether they still roam the rugged mountains of Ras al Khaimah and Fujairah, is unknown. The smallest of the leopard subspecies, the animals have struggled to survive for decades. This week, the International Union for Conservation of Nature classed the leopard "critically endangered," with fewer than 200 left in the wild - mostly in Oman and the Negev desert.
There were thought to be less than a dozen cats left in the wild in the UAE at the end of the nineties, when they were last tracked by the Arabian Leopard Trust (ALT), a charity set up to attempt to save them from extinction. Despite no official sighting for over a decade, the IUCN are reluctant to declare the species extinct in the UAE as the move can lead to the closure of conservation efforts, and if there are animals remaining, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The leopard was once common throughout the mountains of the Arabian peninsula but as populations of gazelle and tahr became depleted through hunting, the species turned to livestock for its prey - leading them in to conflict with villagers. Rapid development and construction has also eaten into the animal's habitat. Paul Vercammen, the director of the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife in Sharjah, said he was pushing for more to be done to protect the leopard's natural habitat so at least, one day, captively bred animals might be released and those that cross the border from Oman would be protected.
He believes there are none left in the wild in the UAE. "There is no resident population but there is hope always," he said. "Protection of suitable habitat must be done as soon as possible. We need to try to create a chain of reserves." Mr Vercammen said any leopards his centre bred could not be released into the wild until risks to their survival were eliminated. Those risks are on the increase, as more roads and hotels are built in the mountains.
Populations of its natural prey, including gazelle and tahr, are also under threat and need to be re-established, Mr Vercammen said. There were thought to be less than 10 of the cats left in the wild in the UAE at the end of the 1990s, when they were last tracked by the Arabian Leopard Trust (ALT), a charity set up to attempt to save them from extinction. RAK officials remain reluctant to talk about the issue. "There is a bit of embarrassment to be honest, because no one thinks there are any left," said one.
Moaz Sawaf, who moved to the UAE from Syria in 1964, tracked leopards for seven years with the ALT. "I strongly believe there still are some in the UAE," said Mr Sawaf, one of the few to have seen the cat in the wild. "But nobody is sure." Mr Sawaf spotted one of the animals in August 1995. The experience, he said, was "absolutely thrilling" and "mind blowing". For him, the thought that it may be extinct in the UAE is difficult to contemplate. "I couldn't tell you how sad I would be. Leopards, for me, are really special."
Mr Sawaf, who now works for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), last found evidence of the animals, including a freshly killed goat, in Fujairah's Wadi Wurayah in 1999. That year the leopard trust was forced to close due to lack of sponsorship. Mr Sawaf no longer has time to trek for days to the remote areas where the leopard seeks refuge. "When we established the ALT the concept of wildlife conservation wasn't clearly understood here. Now the level of understanding is a lot better. I don't think it's too late to do something."
The WWF believe that there may be at least one left in the Wadi Wurayah area. The lush wadi, with its year-round spring, pools, streams and waterfalls, is due to become the UAE's first protected mountainous area by the end of the year. "We think that there's at least one still around," said the WWF's Christoph Tourneq, who heads the project for Wadi Wurayah's protection. He cites unconfirmed sightings of "big cats" by villagers in the area. Tourneq hopes that a new set of camera traps, left in the area in August and due to be collected soon will put an end to the questions.