King of the Desert: the Arabian Leopard

Rub’ al Khali” is a surreal place. With an area of 225,000 square miles, it is the largest contiguous desert in the world, covering most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula and parts of Oman, the UAE and Yemen. Aptly named the Empty Quarter, this is a place with little else but sand, rippling across with the wind and piling up as giant sand dunes. As the sun rises and sets, shadows cast across the dunes give the desert deep autumnal reds and oranges alternating with peridot greens and yellows.

Despite the harsh environment, a variety of animals live here such as spiders, snakes, scorpions, sand foxes, oryz, gazelles, camels and birds. But the most surprising resident is the Arabian Leopard, a cousin of the African leopard and a highly endangered species.

Trap cameras in the Governorate of Dhofar caught a rare glimpse of the critically endangered Arabian leopard in 2018. In Oman, the leopard is protected from hunting and capture by Ministerial Decree.

Fewer than 200 wild individuals are estimated to be currently alive, making the recent sighting of not one but two Arabian leopards together (below) nothing short of miraculous. The male and female pair were resting and caressing each other on a rock cliff on the Dhofar mountains of Oman when this shot was taken. It took eight camera traps and more than two years of waiting to capture this moment.

Photo taken from the acclaimed nature documentary series, Our Planet (2019), Silverback Films.

Three factors have contributed to the diminishing population of this beautiful animal: one – the decrease of natural prey species so they increasingly prey on livestock. Two – shepherds and villagers killing the leopards in retaliation for attacks livestock, and three – the fragmentation of the leopard population, leading to reduced mating chances.

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