Off-roading takes a purpose as an expedition goes in search of one of the most endangered species in the world.
In the tracks of the Arabian leopard
Second time down the rutted bed of the wadi and curiosity overtook the driver of the elderly Toyota pickup truck. With a crunch of gears and spray of sand and grit, the battered vehicle slid to halt by the row of three burly Land Rovers, the Toyota's driver padding down the path towards the blister of blue and yellow tents that had sprung up like bizarre desert flowers in the wilderness of the Dhofar mountains.
Crouched on the welcome mat and with the Lipton's tea bags dunked in mugs of freshly boiled water, the questions began. Who were we and what were we doing here, so far from civilisation that the last mobile phone signal had died just past the army checkpoint nearly an hour back along a track that also once served as a smuggler's path from the badlands of neighbouring Yemen? The answer was a scientific expedition searching for evidence of the Arabian leopard, the last surviving big cat living in a territory that once stretched without pause to the very tip of the Musandam peninsula but is now one of the most endangered species on the planet.
With the help of two Arabic speakers attached to the expedition, this much was explained to our guest, a local camel herder called Ghuwais al Khateri. Tessa McGregor, the scientific adviser and an expert on big cats, unrolled a wildlife chart featuring local wildlife like the oryx and rock hyrax, a small gopher-like creature that, bizarrely, turns out to be most closely related to the elephant. Now it was our turn to ask the questions. Had Mr al Khateri encountered anything interesting in these parts? Slowly a long brown finger reached towards the unfurled chart and softly tapped the outline of the cat.
Very little is known about the Arabian leopard. Perhaps even half a century ago it could be found across the region, from the Yemen to Saudi Arabia and the mountains of the northern Emirates. Today its range is severely curtailed. A survey of Musandam by last year uncovered evidence of the leopards' presence but in tiny numbers; certainly no more than 10 and perhaps just a lone individual. Perhaps 400 individuals survive elsewhere, mostly in the Dhofar mountains of northern Yemen and southern Oman. They are intensely solitary and shy of man, one reason why their range has contract as human settlements have expanded. The other is the hunting of their prey, in some areas almost to extinction.
The cats prefer to kill wild ruminants like the antelope and oryx rather than the large herds of goats that signal the presence of man. At other times, hunger will drive them to smaller creatures like partridge, but a fully-grown cat needs to gorge on up to five kilos of meat several times a week and that is a lot of partridge. In the course of the next month, Tessa hopes to map a substantial region of the mountains inland from the town of Salalah. The expedition is run by Biosphere, a company the recruits eager volunteers who will pay to spend two weeks at a time under canvas to experience life in some of the world's last wilderness areas.
For the leopard expedition, there are around 24 helpers spread out over four weeks. They will be trained in the basic skills of map reading and plotting by GPS. They will shown how to recognise the prints of the creatures that represent the leopards' larder and to look for evidence of kills and what is politely known as "spore." The one thing they have be warned not to expect to see is the Arabian Leopard itself.
Still, others have. Under gentle but persistent questioning, Mr al Khateri confirms that he knew of a dead leopard found not far away. The herder, who thinks he might be 49-years-old, is maddeningly imprecise about time. This might have been 15 years ago ? or perhaps 20. He cannot be sure. With a second cup of tea, the herdsman becomes a little more expansive. Yes, he now says, he has seen the leopard, while walking along a mountain path. The creature crossed his path barely ten paces away. It had something in its mouth, he thinks the afterbirth of a newborn cub. But this was ten, perhaps 15 years ago. He has seen nothing since.
Interviews with locals like al Khateri are crucial to the research. They are a valuable source of evidence; as significant is that their support for her work can boost the animals' chance of survival. When asked if he misses the leopard, Mr al Khateri shrugs. Not really. It means he does not risk losing any of his livestock. Still, he accepts that the leopard does not pose any danger to man. And if someone could show that having the leopard around in greater numbers might bring benefits to the region, he would be willing to listen to the arguments.
The camel herder is anxious to be off, ready for the later afternoon milking. The team is anxious to talk to him again. Could we come and watch the camels being milked later? Yes of course. But, the herder, explains, he lives a long way from the wadi. There is another man closer you might want to visit. He gives directions to the ranger before jumping back in the Toyota. After lunch, we jump in one of the cars. Land Rover has donated three of its LR3 model for Biosphere to use. The vehicles are the expedition's muscle; the only way to safely transport people and equipment across the high sierra and then hundreds of feet down to the wadi floor.
The models loaned to Biosphere are standard versions of the LR3 with a 4.4 litre V8 engine. The significant difference is the tires, with extra thick treads to deal with the jagged rocks that litter the few flat surfaces of the Dhofar. In desert driving the tires are deflated for better traction in sand. In the mountains, the reverse is true, with the tire pressure raised by a third to give better strength.
The other major selling point of the LR3 is the Terrain Response System which allows the driver to select exactly the right combination of gears and engine performance for virtually any conditions. Behind the automatic transmission a dial sets the LR3 for everything from snow and ice, to navigating mud and creeping over large rocks. For particularly steep slopes, the Hill Descent Control button allows the car's on board computer to control the brakes and limits the top speed to 7 kph. It makes the LR3 virtually idiot proof in even the most difficult terrain (although later, crawling down a 30 degree path, heavily eroded by rains and with a 100 foot drop to the right, it does raise the question: Should an idiot even be at the wheel?).
The LR3 climbs out of the Wadi with no more effort than reaching the top floor parking deck of the Abu Dhabi Mall. Bouncing across a landscape scored with spectacular canyons, we briefly hit tarmac before turning off towards an escarpment where only a day before we had spotted a magnificent Imperial Eagle drifting in the thermals on two metre wings. At the base of a cliff is a dwelling that consists of little more than a tarpaulin draped cage.
Sitting outside are Maowd ali Owas and his 14-year-old son Ahmed. Mr Owas puts a battered and blackened kettle on a camp fire while his son finds a clean glass and fills it from a bowl of fresh camel milk topped with a plume of foam. The Biosphere team want to ask about the leopard but Mr Owas has something else he wants to show us. After finished our drinks we trek down a small canyon, the Omani father and son leading the way, their bare feet impervious to the sharp flints. There, hiding under an overhang is a one-day old camel and its mother.
By now the light is fading and the rest of the herd are making their way down from the surrounding hills for milking. Tessa says she will come back on another day to talk more about the leopard. This is how it works, she explains, building trust and confidence among the locals until the information begins to flow. It may take years to build up an accurate picture of the status of the Arabian leopard, to be followed by conservation measures that enlist the support of the local population.
But this time, she hopes. curiosity might just save the cat. firstname.lastname@example.org