Are there any Arabian leopards left in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia is no longer home to a sustainable wild population of the Critically Endangered Arabian leopard, according to a new paper in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Researchers spent two years surveying the leopards’ historic range for any signs of them, but with no luck.

Their findings suggest that populations are unlikely to recover without human interventions, such as breeding programs and reintroducing captive-bred leopards into the wild.

The Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr) once roamed across the Arabian Peninsula, but in  2008 it was estimated that less than 200 individuals exist in fragmented populations in the wild.

A large proportion of their historical range once included the Saudi Arabia, but there have been no confirmed sightings since 2014.

To get up-to-date information on their distribution researchers conducted 14 surveys over 4,000 km2 of historical leopard habitat in Saudi Arabia. They also conducted questionnaires with local communities and collected predator scats for mitochondrial DNA analysis.

“Our comprehensive survey did not detect any conclusive evidence of Arabian leopards living in the areas surveyed,” says Dr Carolyn Dunford, a conservation scientist at Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organisation, and first author of the paper. “However, this should not be interpreted as a final blow for the Arabian leopard, Critically Endangered though they are.”

The historic decline of the species in Saudi Arabia can be attributed to a variety of environmental and anthropogenic factors.

Direct threats include declines in prey numbers, as well as hunting and trapping for the illegal wildlife trade. While indirect threats, such as increasing urbanisation, road construction, and mining cause habitat degradation.

“Now we are equipped with this knowledge, it will be possible for conservationists and policymakers to respond more effectively to the actual state of the Arabian leopard today,” adds Dunford.

“We now know exactly how endangered they are; consequently, we can take targeted steps to reintroduce them into the wild and ensure they have sufficiently sustainable habitats to prosper.”

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