|Arabian leopard in the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife, Sharjah|
|Subspecies:||P. p. nimr|
|Panthera pardus nimr
Hemprich and Ehrenberg, 1833
Panthera pardus jarvisi
The Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr) is a leopard subspecies native to the Arabian Peninsula and classified as Critically Endangered by IUCN since 1996. Fewer than 200 wild individuals were estimated to be alive in 2006. The population is severely fragmented. Subpopulations are isolated and not larger than 50 mature individuals. The population is thought to decline continuously.
The Arabian leopard is one of the smallest leopard subspecies. It was tentatively affirmed as a distinct subspecies by genetic analysis from a single captive leopard from Israel of south Arabian origin, which appeared most closely related to the African leopard.
The Arabian leopard has pelage hues that vary from pale yellow to deep golden or tawny and are patterned with rosettes. At a weight of about 30 kg (66 lb) for the male and around 20 kg (44 lb) for the female, the Arabian leopard is much smaller than the African leopard and other Asian subspecies.
Distribution and habitat
The geographic range of Arabian leopards is poorly understood but generally considered to be limited to the Arabian Peninsula, including Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. They live in mountainous uplands and hilly steppes, but seldom move to open plains, desert or coastal lowlands.
There was a very small population in Israel's Negev desert, estimated at 20 in the late 1970s. Leopards were hunted until the early 1960s. By 2002, less than 10 isolated individuals were estimated to survive in the Judean Desert and the Negev Highlands.
Until the late 1960s, leopards were widely distributed in the mountains along both the coasts of the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. In Saudi Arabia, leopard habitat is estimated to have decreased by around 90% since the beginning of the 19th century. Of 19 reports obtained from informants between 1998 and 2003, only four are confirmed including sightings in one location in the Hijaz Mountains and three locations in the Asir Mountains, with the most recent record in 2002 south of Biljurashi. No leopard was recorded during a camera trapping survey conducted from 2002 to 2003. Although the leopard is officially protected in the country, its remaining range is not encompassed by protected areas.
In Oman, leopards occurred in the Al Hajar Mountains until the late 1970s. The largest confirmed sub-population inhabits the Dhofar Mountains in the country's southeast. In the Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve, 17 individual adult leopards were identified between 1997 and 2000 using camera traps. The home range of Arabian leopards in this reserve is roughly estimated at about 350 km2 (140 sq mi) for males and 250 km2 (97 sq mi) for females. The Dhofar mountain range is considered the best habitat for Arabian leopards in the country. This rugged terrain provides shelters, shade and trapped water, and harbors a wide variety of prey species, in particular in escarpments and narrow wadis.
In Yemen, leopards formerly ranged in all mountainous areas of the country, including the western and southern highlands eastwards to the border with Oman. Since the early 1990s, leopards are considered rare and close to extinction due to direct persecution by local people and depletion of wild prey.
Ecology and behaviour
Arabian leopards are predominantly nocturnal, but are sometimes also seen in daylight. They seem to concentrate on small to medium prey species, and usually store carcasses of large prey in caves or lairs but not in trees. Scat analyses revealed that the main prey species comprise Arabian gazelle, Nubian ibex, Cape hare, rock hyrax, porcupine, Ethiopian hedgehog, small rodents, birds, and insects. Since local people reduced ungulates to small populations, leopards are forced to alter their diet to smaller prey and livestock such as goats, sheep, donkeys and young camels.
Information about ecology and behaviour of Arabian leopards in the wild is very limited. A leopard from the Judean desert is reported to have come into heat in March. After a gestation period of 13 weeks, females give birth to two to four cubs in a cave amidst boulders or in a burrow.
Leopard cubs are born with closed eyes that open four to nine days later. Captive-born Arabian leopard cubs emerged from their den for the first time at the age of one month. Cubs are weaned at the age of about three months, and remain with their mother for up to two years.
Three confirmed separate subpopulations remain on the Arabian Peninsula with fewer than an estimated 200 leopards. The Arabian leopard is threatened by habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation; prey depletion caused by unregulated hunting; trapping for the illegal wildlife trade and retaliatory killing in defense of livestock.
The actual distribution of the leopard in Arabia is not known exactly, mainly due to habitat destruction, killing and lack of ecological studies. Some reports indicate that the leopard population has decreased drastically in Arabia due to killing by shepherds and villagers after leopard raids on their livestock making them an enemy of farmers. In addition, hunting of leopard prey such as hyrax and ibex by local people and habitat fragmentation, especially in the Sarawat Mountains, have made the survival of the leopard uncertain.
In the 1950s, the numbers of leopards were already decreasing drastically due to killing by hunters, and habitat degradation and fragmentation. Together with the killing and poisoning of the leopard, decreased availability of prey might bring about its extinction. Other reasons for killing leopards are for personal satisfaction and pride, traditional medicine and hides. Some leopards are killed accidentally when eating poisoned carcasses intended for wolves and hyenas.
The 4,500 km2 (1,700 sq mi) Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve was established in 1997 after camera trap records of leopards were obtained; camera trapping since then has identified 17 individual adult leopards, including one cub. Al Jazeera spotlighted recent successful tracking efforts at the Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve in a 2012 episode of its program Witness.
At least ten wild leopards were live-captured in Yemen since the early 1990s and sold to zoos; some have been placed in conservation breeding centers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
A detailed study of leopard distribution and habitat requirement is needed for the management of the species. The ecological information needed include data on feeding behavior, range use and reproduction. This information is of great importance to the survival of the species. There are many sites already surveyed and considered to be suitable for preservation for leopards in the plan adopted by the national commission for wildlife conservation and development. These areas include Jebel Fayfa, Jebel Al-Qahar, Jebel Shada, which has already been gazetted as a protected area, Jebel Nees, Jebel Wergan, Jebel Radwa and Harrat Uwayrid. The formal establishment of some of these areas is now urgent.
A successful conservation strategy must promote the awareness of the importance of leopard conservation, employing the media and perhaps other sources for basic education programs. The support and involvement of people living close to leopard habitats are vital in such efforts. This is true not only because they might affect the conservation of the leopard in one way or another, but also because they depend on their livestock which could be killed occasionally by leopards. Although it is not always practical, compensation for lost livestock from leopard predation should be considered.
Revenue from sources such as hunting rights and ecotourism, services such as roads and school employment in protected areas would encourage local residents to participate in leopard conservation. Furthermore, well-managed protected areas will ensure the continued survival of the species until other factors enhancing its survival become effective. Public awareness, fruitful consideration of the needs of local people and ecological studies may take years to be useful.
The first Arabian leopards were captured in southern Oman and registered in the studbook in 1985. Captive breeding was initiated in 1995 in the Oman Mammal Breeding Centre and is operated at a regional level on the Arabian Peninsula. Since 1999, the regional studbook is coordinated and managed by personnel of the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife in Sharjah. As of 2010, nine participating institutions kept forty-two males, thirty-two females, and three unsexed leopards, of which nineteen were wild caught. This captive population comprised fourteen founders that have an unequal number of descendants.
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