x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The bloodthirsty kings of nature urgently need your help

There are efforts being made to help save the wild carnivores of the Arabian desert, from foxes to leopards, but you can do your bit.

Have you camped in the desert and heard the Arabian wolf howl? Have you glimpsed the black-banded tail of a Gordon's wildcat as it streaks across a desert track in front of your four-wheel drive?

In another time, even before the travels of the explorer Wilfred Thesiger in the 1950s, these would have been more common occurrences. These days, even biologists must visit a zoo to be certain of seeing an Arabian carnivore.

Arabia is home to a surprising diversity of carnivores including small and very attractive species such as Ruppell's foxes and sandcats, and larger, "fiercer" species including the caracal, striped hyena and Arabian wolf. The best known species, an icon for regional conservation, is the Nimr, or Arabian leopard. But with so much diversity, why are predators so hard to find and why are they in trouble throughout the region?

One reason is their natural behaviour. Most surviving species inhabit remote mountains and deserts and are predominantly nocturnal and secretive. They are so challenging to observe that conservationists assessing populations use special camera traps to determine whether wild carnivores live in an area.

Another important reason why we don't see wild carnivores is that so few remain. There are few records of the historical abundance of carnivores in Arabia but we do have historical literature from neighbouring Iran. The hunting records of Zel-e-Soltan, a Qajar prince from the late 19th century, describe grand shooting parties when 100,000 shots were fired in a day and wolves, leopards, lions and tigers were slaughtered. The last Caspian tiger was shot in Iran in 1953 and today the species is extinct. Only 12 to 15 Persian cheetahs survive and this beautiful animal may soon be extinct.

If in Iran it was recreational hunting by the ruling elite that eliminated the carnivores, in Arabia hunting by men protecting their domesticated herds contributed to the decline of the larger predators. Some, like the striped hyena, are persecuted because of an unfounded reputation as a robber of human graves.

"Hanging trees" are still traditionally used to display shot predators. In a recent ecological survey in Saudi Arabia, wolf carcasses were encountered approximately every 10 kilometres in the Western Asir mountains, where Bedouin still lose sheep to wolf predation.

This hunting pressure made the cheetah extinct in Arabia in the 1960s, while today the Arabian leopard has the dubious reputation of being one of the rarest large cats on the planet. There are estimated to be only 200 to 250 leopards left in the wild and about 50 in captivity. Without serious conservation measures, this species may also become extinct.

Hunting is still an important cultural activity for men in the region. Opportunistic killing of wildlife was once necessary for a Bedouin population to survive in harsh deserts. Subsistence hunting evolved into recreational hunting, but unfortunately it appears there is little social pressure from communities telling hunters that killing endangered animals is unacceptable. In addition to direct persecution, carnivores are affected by the elimination of the animals they eat, such as ibex, gazelle and Arabian Tahr.

Other factors concern conservationists. Species such as the Arabian wolf and Gordon's wildcat that live on the edge of human habitation are in close contact with domestic cats and dogs. Interbreeding between wolf and dog and wildcat and cat is called hybridisation. Continued interbreeding by wolf or wildcat with their domestic counterparts will, after several generations, lead to offspring that are indistinguishable from the most common of house cat or dog. This is extinction by genetic dilution.

Disease is another issue that can finish off small populations of carnivores. Wild carnivores are susceptible to common cat and dog viral diseases. In the UAE, veterinarians have found that captive Blandford's foxes are vulnerable to lung infections with a bacteria called Rhodococcus after the animals immune system has been weakened by distemper.

With all these problems, what is being done to help the wild carnivores of the region? Centres such as the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife in Sharjah have established captive breeding populations of many species, including the Arabian leopard. These projects are "holding operations", because there are no wild areas that are safe enough to release captive bred animals.

Another initiative is the Yemeni Leopard Recovery Programme. This grassroots foundation aims to ensure a sustainably managed population of wild Arabian leopards living in harmony with local communities in Yemen.

More commitment is needed from government environment agencies to establish protected areas and develop awareness programmes that educate communities in the areas where carnivores live. If more nationals are to embark on careers in conservation, regional universities should establish courses on subjects such as wildlife management.

What can you do? Find out more and support regional conservation organisations involved with carnivore conservation such as the Yemeni Leopard Recovery Programme, at www.yemenileopard.org. Or organise a fund-raising event at your school for a wildlife charity. The editors of Wildlife Middle East News (www.wmenews.com) coordinated a "Spotty Day" at local schools in Dubai in 2008 focusing on spreading awareness and collecting donations to support leopard conservation in Yemen. Three schools raised more than Dh10,000.

Dr Tom Bailey is a veterinarian based in the UAE and a cofounder of Wildlife Middle East News