x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Battling extinction of the Arabian leopard

The endangered Arabian leopard's chances of reintroduction to the UAE wild is almost nonexistant, but a Sharjah sanctuary hopes to save the species.

Will, an Arabian leopard rescued from an illegal zoo in Yemen, now lives at the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife.
Will, an Arabian leopard rescued from an illegal zoo in Yemen, now lives at the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife.

SHARJAH // Will spent his youth cooped up in a cramped two-metre square cage, being poked and prodded until he roared for the crowd. At the age of three he was rescued from the small illegal zoo in Sana'a, Yemen, and brought to the Sharjah Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife, where he is one of 24 Arabian leopards - the largest captive collection in the world. The Arabian leopard is now classified as "critically endangered" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, pushed to the brink by hunting and the destruction of its natural habitat.

There have been no documented sightings of an Arabian leopard in the wild in UAE for a decade. Many conservationists think there are none left, and even the most optimistic estimate is that there are no more than two. For many it is already too late - the Arabian lion, wild ass, ostrich and two species of gazelle are among the animals that are now extinct here. With such a bleak outlook, the hope for the future of the leopard species rests with animals such as Will.

With so few, if any, remaining in the wild, the Sharjah government's Environment and Protected Areas Authority has focused its conservation efforts on the captive breeding programme for the big cats, and supports and funds the breeding centre. Located in the desert 28km out of Sharjah, the centre is closed to the public so that the occupants are disturbed as little as possible. Arabian leopards, cheetahs and Nubian ibex pace spacious enclosures set in the shade of large leafy trees. The institute breeds almost all the wild mammals native to the peninsula.

Arabian leopards are smaller and more finely featured than their African cousins. During the heat of the day the leopards laze around their enclosures.Nocturnal creatures, shy and solitary, it is not until dusk that they venture out to hunt in the wild. Unlike Will, most of the leopards at the breeding centre were born there. "In the beginning we had to work to build up a trust relationship with him, but now he's settled in and learnt to trust what's going on. I think he's happy here," said Jane Edmonds, who oversees the feline breeding programmes at the centre.

Since it was set up in 1997, the centre has worked to preserve the genes of the peninsula's many vulnerable species. The intention is to work as a buffer to support wild populations, so that if there is a population crash in the wild, a species won't be completely wiped out. It also compiles essential data on the behaviour, social structure and survival requirements of endangered species, which can help to conserve wild populations.

Having successfully bred 18 Arabian leopards, the programme is considered to be the most successful in the world. "The hand-reared leopards tend to be a bit more confident and they have more of a human imprint," says Ms Edmonds, as one affectionately nuzzles her hand through the wires of the enclosure. "This does mean that there can be problems breeding. They can be more interested in humans than other leopards."

The aim is to keep the leopards' environment as natural as possible and for them to have minimal human contact, but that can be difficult. First-time mothers often neglect to properly look after their young cubs, forcing the keepers to hand-rear them. "We use CCTV to monitor that the mother is doing well and looking after her cubs and feeding them. Then if something is going wrong we can intervene as soon as possible, hopefully before a cub dies," Ms Edmonds said. "Given how extremely endangered the species is this is all the more important."

All the leopards bred in Sharjah can trace their lineage to one female. Though animals are lent from one centre to another it can sometimes take as long as five years to come to an agreement, and with a breeding lifespan of about 10 years, time is of the essence. It is hoped a new conservation agreement being drawn up between Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will improve co-operation. The big challenge is how to translate the success of captive breeding programmes to the wild. Experts argue that wild populations are doomed unless some animals are reintroduced.

That is a controversial process and cannot even be considered until risks to their survival are eliminated. If anything those risks are on the increase, as more roads and hotels are built in the mountains. Abdulaziz al Midfa, director general of the Environment and Protected Areas Authority and the breeding centre, said the chance of it happening in the UAE has all but slipped away. Intensive quarrying of the mountains to build the man-made islands off the coast of Dubai and Abu Dhabi means that there is just not enough of their natural habitat left.

"In the UAE, it's a dream. What we are doing to our environment - mountains, the desert - is really a crime," he said. "Humans have reached everywhere now, there's always a farm or a quarry or a hotel or resort in the mountains and that will be a limitation to any release programme for leopards." The work of the breeding centre means that at least one day, there may be the option to release the leopards somewhere.

All the animals bred on the site are displayed at the Arabian Wildlife Centre next door, which attracts 300,000 visitors, including children. Mr Midfa says its our duty to leave these children more than shining buildings, roads and artificial islands. "It's not just for the next generation to see but it's for the next generation to have. This is our responsibility for the next generation - that we leave them something natural."

lmorris@thenational.ae