The Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr) is one of the nine recognized subspecies of leopard. It is characterized by a light coat dotted with rosettes and small size. Its diet consists essentially of small and medium-sized mammals, such as the Arabian gazelle and the Arabian tahr (Arabitragus jayakari). The Arabian leopard occupies the remote and rugged areas of the high mountains of the Arabian Peninsula. Until the 1960s, the Arabian leopard was still quite numerous throughout the peninsula, but the loss of its habitat and excessive hunting have reduced the number of specimens.
Currently, in the Arabian peninsula three subpopulations remain, made up of less than two hundred specimens in all. In all its range there is only one natural reserve and a further number of specimens, less than a hundred, are bred in captivity for the purpose of ex situ conservation programs. The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the Arabian leopard as a critically endangered subspecies.
The Arabian leopard has a coat of color varying from light yellow to fawn, covered with rosettes.
With a weight that averages around 30 kg in males and 20 kg in females and an average length of no more than one meter (accompanied by 80 cm of tail), the Arabian leopard is one of the most common leopard subspecies. The attractive muscles of the shoulder and the compactness of its neck allow the animal to take advantage of these excellent natural peculiarities by climbing without further efforts on trees despite, often, carrying with it prey with twice the weight of its; the animal transports its prey upwards to remove them from other very greedy predators of carcasses.
‘The local population uniformly fears the leopard and until now, were not concerned for the welfare of the species. It is interesting to note that their fear does not concern their own lives but rather that of their livestock” (Pittet 5). In addition to its exceptional physical qualities, the leopard can count on the developed senses of sight, smell and hearing. Although males and females share their territory, the Arabian leopards are, like all leopards, solitary and territorial animals, which meet for only about five days to mate. After a gestation of about one hundred days, the female gives birth to one to four babies within a protected area such as a small cave or a cavity in the rock. During the first few weeks, the female often moves her offspring so that they cannot be discovered. Although the young open their eyes nine or ten days after birth, they leave the lair only around four weeks. The mother breastfeeds her babies up to the age of three months, but they stay with her until the age of two.
This modus operandi is closely related to the presence of other predators; in fact, this habit of carrying prey on trees is not in the least accomplished by this feline. The tree plays a fundamental role in the habits of the leopard who spends a lot of his time crouching on the resistant branches to rest his limbs and at the same time to stay away from attacks by predators who are not very good at climbing. The tree is also an excellent stalking place during its ambushes to other animals; in fact, the leopard, jumping on its prey from the branches, swoops down on the animal surprised by this trap and tries to kill it either with a powerful paw in the neck or biting it on the neck or throat. The leopard is skilled not only on land but also in water as it has outstanding skills as a perfect swimmer. “Conservation breeding efforts for the Arabian Leopard concentrate on maintaining a genetically and demographically sound captive population that serves as a “safety net” for the subspecies and guarantees its survival in captivity” (Budd, Leus 142). Although it is considered a very fast animal, for its short and squat legs it is less fast if compared to other felines such as the cheetah or the puma; therefore he prefers a hunting style based on ambush and surprise rather than chasing his prey.
Patience is one of his fundamental virtues which also allows him to sit for a whole hour crouching on the ground, ‘sliding’ silently in the direction of his victim and taking him by surprise even if faster than his executioner. It usually occupies territorial areas with an extension ranging from 1 to 10 square kilometers and has the habit of leaving its mark on trunks and the ground with its claws; another custom of the leopard is to urinate on trees to circle its territory. The habitat in which the animal moves can influence the thickness of the fur and its coloring; for example in humid environments the shade is very dark while in places characterized by rigid temperatures its coat is more fluent. Its fine fur has made it an object of hunting and in many regions of some countries, the leopard is at risk of extinction. ‘During the 1990’s additional institutions within the range, states began to acquire leopards and the need for a coordinated breeding program became a priority” (Edmonds et al. 40). Like a large number of felids, the leopard also has a white spot in the center of its rear black ears. The melanism present on the leopard promotes it as the animal with the highest rate of presence of this peculiarity among the various families of wild animals. The leopard’s favorite victims during his hunt are varied: wildebeests, cubs of large ungulates, antelopes, zebras, baboons, and other smaller monkeys. However, the sacrificial victim of its feeding remains the impala.
Monkeys, deer and wild pigs are instead ‘game’ preferred by the leopard; the leopard, however, is not limited only to large animals but also prefers to hunt frogs, insects, birds and fish. The tail of these hybrids was very similar to that possessed by the pumas while the coat was reddish-blond (or the brown variant), fawn with brown spots almost identical to those of the leopard and on the muzzle they had patches equal to those of the pumas; another specimen of pumapardo instead was described as a gray puma of smaller dimensions and provided with brown rosettes. “The type locality for this subspecies is Asterabad in southern Iran where it was described in 1927” (Breitenmoser, Breitenmoser-Würsten 44). Even a shrewd predator like the leopard, however, has enemies that undermine its existence. Its inferiority towards the tiger and the lion is due exclusively to its small size compared to these two cats. Compared to the hyena and the wolf, the leopard has the same or even larger dimensions, however, what penalizes it towards these two felids is its own nature as a solitary hunter that almost always places it in net numerical inferiority compared to the populous herds of hyenas and wolves that they instinctively tend to constitute. It must be said that the male of the leopard clearly outweighs the single hyena on the physical plane which often, if alone, is attacked and killed by the leopard as for the cheetah, thinner and ‘skinny’, even if in-group it almost always succumbs under the fierce blows of the leopard. If a male transits quickly into that of a conspecific he is not attacked, but when the permanence continues, the fight is inevitable. In general, the males immediately approach the females in estrus. After mating, the male stays a few days with the female and then leaves her. The female gives birth and raises the puppies alone. Also giving birth to one to six puppies. They get small underweight, which does not exceed 500 g at birth, are left to die by the mother. Usually, 1-2 puppies survive at birth. The female watches them lovingly, nursing them for about three months. When she goes looking for food, to feed and produce milk, she leaves them hidden in a den. Some individuals survive in the Judean desert and in the Negev, in a single area of Yemen and another in Oman. The largest confirmed population lives in the Dhofar mountains in southern Oman. The photographic traps allowed to identify 17 adults starting from 1997 in the Jebel Samhan nature reserve and 9-11 leopards at the border between the reserve and the border with Yemen.
The Royal Commission of Saudi Arabia for AlUla (RCU) has announced the birth of two Arabian leopard cubs while starting a breeding program to help preserve and eventually reintroduce the subspecies of the big feline, seriously endangered, in the wild regions in the North West of the Kingdom as part of its Arabian Leopard Initiatives (ALI) portfolio. “Until recently, leopards were reported in a few remote areas of the mountains along the coast of the Red Sea” (Al-Johany 21). These animals have such a plastic physiology and food ecology that they can live in almost all possible bio topic-ecosystem combinations. They can be found in evergreen tropical rain forests, in desert areas, in stony and rocky regions, in marshy reed areas, along waterways, in snowy regions, plains and savannas up to reach several thousand meters above sea level. Like the jaguar, the leopard spends most of its day on a tree, lying among the branches, where it often rests and drags the leftovers of its prey, to feed itself calmly when hungry. The evolutionary line to which the leopard belongs, that of the Panterini, separated about 10.8 million years ago from the common ancestor of all the Felidae, then, approximately 6.4 million years ago, the two evolutionary lines that separated would later lead to clouded leopards (Neofelis) and representatives of the genus Panthera. The extreme variability of the leopard coat (Panthera pardus) in the past led to the creation of a large number of subspecies on the basis of the shape or color of the spots. As many as twenty-seven subspecies were generally recognized before the Sinhalese biologist Sriyanie Miththapala and her collaborators did not revise the classification of leopards following direct DNA study in 1995.
The Arabian leopard is classified in CITES Appendix I. The Jebel Samhan nature reserve (4500 km²) was established in 1997 following the presence confirmed by photographic traps of 17 adult specimens and a young one. The Al Jazeera channel showed successful efforts to save the Arabian leopards within this reserve in 2012 in an episode of the Witness program. Since the early 1990s, at least ten Arabian leopards have been captured alive in Yemen and sold to zoos. Some of them have been transferred to ex-situ conservation centers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. An in-depth scientific study on the ecology and distribution of the Arabian leopard is absolutely necessary to determine the best in situ conservation policy. The necessary information concerns diet, land use, habitat type, and reproduction data. Numerous sites have already been examined and could be converted to protected areas: Jebel Fayfa, Jebel Al-Qahar, Jebel Shada, Jebel Nees, Jebel Wergan, Jebel Radwa, and Harrat Uwayrid. The creation of new reserves is urgent in order to preserve the last remaining wild specimens.