How the ‘critically endangered’ Arabian leopard is being returned to the wild in Saudi Arabia

Special In Saudi Arabia, where, for generations, the Arabian Leopard and its prey were hunted and its habitat steadily eroded by human expansion and development, the animal is feared to be extinct. (Supplied/RCU Images)
In Saudi Arabia, where, for generations, the Arabian Leopard and its prey were hunted and its habitat steadily eroded by human expansion and development, the animal is feared to be extinct. (Supplied/RCU Images)
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Updated 11 February 2022

How the ‘critically endangered’ Arabian leopard is being returned to the wild in Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia, where, for generations, the Arabian Leopard and its prey were hunted and its habitat steadily eroded by human expansion and development, the animal is feared to be extinct. (Supplied/RCU Images)
  • Only a handful of the magnificent animals are thought to survive in the entire Arabian Peninsula
  • A program managed by the RCU has bred 16 cubs at the Wildlife Research Center in Taif

LONDON: Abdulaziz Alenzy will never forget the moment last April when he got the call. After more than three months of anxious waiting, one of the leopards in the captive breeding program at the Wildlife Research Center in Taif had finally given birth to a healthy, feisty cub.

“I cannot describe my feelings when she was born,” said Alenzy, veterinary manager at the Royal Commission for AlUla. “We were expecting a cub to be born that day, but when I got the call from the keepers it was, ’Wow!’ I got up, got dressed and rushed to work.”

For 12 weeks the team left mother and cub undisturbed — the first three months of life can be touch-and-go for a new-born leopard. Only then were they able to carry out a medical examination, when they discovered that “we were blessed with a female cub, which is a great thing for our program.”

On that cub, one of 16 that have so far been bred successfully in Taif as part of an Arabian Leopard Program being managed by the RCU, rests the hopes of one of the most ambitious rewilding experiments ever attempted anywhere in the world.

“Our goal at RCU is nothing less than to restore the power of nature’s balance,” said Dr. Ahmed Mohammed Al-Malki, the commission’s director general of nature reserves.

Working in partnership with Panthera, a global conservation organization dedicated to preserving the world’s seven big cats and their critical role in global ecosystems, the RCU plans to reintroduce the leopard to the wild in Saudi Arabia.

“We believe that saving endangered species such as the Arabian leopard is critical to the protection of our planet and the natural balance of our ecosystem,” Al-Malki said.

Right now, the Arabian leopard is classified on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List as “critically endangered.” It is all but extinct in the wild.

Only a handful of the magnificent animals are thought to survive in the whole Arabian Peninsula, holding out in a last refuge in Oman’s Dhofar mountains.

In Saudi Arabia, where, for generations, the animal and its prey were hunted and its habitat steadily eroded by human expansion and development, the leopard is feared to be extinct.

“I don’t think we can say for certain that the leopard is extinct in Saudi Arabia,” said biologist David Mallon, visiting professor in the department of natural sciences at Manchester Metropolitan University and a member of the IUCN Red List Committee.

“There could still be the odd animal or two hanging on somewhere. But over the past few years a lot of camera trapping has been carried out. This has been much intensified by the Panthera people, working with AlUla at a dozen sites over the past two years, but they haven’t found any photographs of the leopard.”

FASTFACT

* Famous buildings and landmarks in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman were lighting up to mark the very first Arabian Leopard Day on Feb. 10.

The leopard was already rare in Saudi Arabia by the 1960s. The last confirmed sighting in the Kingdom was in 2014, when a video was posted on YouTube of a leopard that had been poisoned by a farmer in the Wadi Numan area of Makkah.

That was the starting point for the RCU, which, even as the breeding of leopards goes ahead, is embarking on an education and awareness program designed to highlight the importance, and the benefits to local communities, of restoring the leopard to its ancient hunting grounds.

This will help communities to realize “there is a direct link between their prosperity, their future, and the fact that the leopard is being reintroduced,” said Thomas Kaplan, founder of Panthera. “(The most important part of) the process of reintroducing big cats is to ensure the buy-in of local populations.”

For its part, the RCU is “working hand-in-hand with the local community,” investing in “education and learning for AlUla’s next generation to create training and employment opportunities.”

The opportunity to see leopards in the wild will doubtless play a significant part in the development of the AlUla region as a cultural tourism destination rich in archaeology, heritage and stunning landscapes — one that creates many jobs for local people.




Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, the Saudi ambassador to the US, is founder of Catmosphere, a non-profit foundation that aims to raise awareness of the many endangered cat species around the world. (Screenshot/Instagram)

The RCU plans to release the first captive-bred leopards into the Sharaan Nature Reserve by 2030. The reserve is a protected habitat of 925 square kilometers being created at AlUla, in the dramatic canyon landscape east of the ancient rock-carved Nabateaen city of Hegra.

The timing could not be more perfect. The AlUla project — establishing the area as an international tourist destination rich in natural and human history — is one of the cornerstones of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 blueprint for economic diversification.

The location is also perfect. Leopards, along with lions and cheetahs, lived in this very place for millennia before they lost the fight for living space with humans.

Evidence that the animals thrived here for thousands of years — alongside lions and cheetahs, now both long extinct — can be found in ancient rock carvings, or petroglyphs, scattered across the landscape, showing leopards prowling what was then the lush, verdant landscape of the Arabian Peninsula.

Now, says Kaplan, the leopard is coming home — and that is a vital step in Saudi Arabia’s broader plans to dramatically increase the number of protected habitats in the country.

“The beauty of saving the big cats is that they stand at the top of the pyramid in terms of the food chain,” he said. “Think of them as the umbrella species or the apex predator — the iconic megafauna within its ecosystem. It is the representation of a healthy landscape; a one-stop-shop for wildlife conservation.




Right now, the Arabian leopard is classified on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List as “critically endangered.” It is all but extinct in the wild. (Supplied/RCU Images)

“In other words, if you want to save large landscapes, then the way to go about it is to focus on the top of the food chain, the umbrella species. And in Saudi Arabia, that is the leopard.”

The commitment to the leopard program runs deep. In June 2016, in an open-air ceremony amid the stunning scenery of the AlUla landscape, Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, Saudi Arabia’s minister of culture and RCU governor, signed an agreement with Panthera, committing the commission to investing $20 million over 10 years to aid global conservation of the leopard and to revitalize the Arabian leopard population.

Prince Badr said after the ceremony: “It is our duty to protect, conserve and build the population numbers to preserve the species from becoming a footnote in history,” and to “ensure that populations in other countries around the world are preserved before they reach the levels of endangerment faced today by our precious native big cats.”

Preserving animals means preserving landscapes, and the leopard program is the flagship in a fleet of green initiatives being launched to restore and protect the balance of nature across the Kingdom, building on previous successes including the reintroduction of other threatened species and the designation of great swathes of the country as protected areas.

Following the launch of the Saudi Green Initiative in March 2021, other rewilding initiatives are under way across the Kingdom, including the reversal of desertification across vast areas, the restoration of habitats degraded by livestock overgrazing, and a huge planned increase in the number and scale of protected areas in Saudi Arabia.

The first protected area in the country was established in 1986 — a 13,775-square-kilometer reserve at Harrat al-Harrah in the north of the Kingdom. Today, it is home to a dazzling array of important animals, including the Reem gazelle, Arabian wolf, red fox, sand fox, striped hyena, Cape hare, jerboa, houbara bustard and golden eagle.

 

 

Since the designation of Harrat al-Harrah, a total of 14 other areas, covering more than 82,000 square kilometers, have been protected. Now, under the auspices of the Saudi Green Initiative, there are plans to increase the area of protected land to roughly 600,000 square kilometers — more than 30 percent of the Kingdom’s total land area.

Saudi Arabia has already successfully reintroduced the Arabian oryx to the wild — a prime example, according to Kaplan, of what can be achieved.

By 1972 the oryx, once common across the Arabian Peninsula, had been hunted to extinction in the wild. But, bred from captive specimens, by 1982 the species had been reintroduced in Oman, with subsequent reintroductions in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Remarkably, by 2011 the status of the species on the IUCN Red List had been changed from extinct to vulnerable — the first time that a vanished species had ever made such a dramatic comeback.

“The recovery of the Arabian oryx has turned out to be one of the most inspirational case studies for captive breeding and reintroduction of any species anywhere in the world, and one of the most powerful models we have for the successful reintroduction of the Arabian leopard itself,” said Kaplan.

“Everyone involved in that program remembers when the first Arabian oryx was born in captivity. They had no idea that it was going to be as successful as it was.

“But we certainly do believe that with the births of the cubs in Taif we are seeing the first paw prints of the success of the Arabian leopard initiative.”


Saudi FM pays condolences to slain Abe Shinzo in meeting with Japan FM

Saudi FM pays condolences to slain Abe Shinzo in meeting with Japan FM
Updated 27 September 2022

Saudi FM pays condolences to slain Abe Shinzo in meeting with Japan FM

Saudi FM pays condolences to slain Abe Shinzo in meeting with Japan FM
  • Japanese FM Hayashi Yoshimasa expressed his appreciation for Saudi’s presence at the ceremony

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud paid his heartfelt condolences over the passing of former Prime Minister ABE Shinzo during his meeting with Japan Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa on Tuesday.

Prince Faisal is in Japan to attend Abe’s state funeral, which took place earlier this morning. During the two officials’ meeting, Yoshimasa expressed his appreciation for Saudi’s presence at the ceremony.

He also expressed his intention to “firmly develop the diplomatic legacy inherited from former Prime Minister Abe and strengthen the strategic partnership between Japan and Saudi Arabia,” according to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Kingdom’s FM reaffirmed his hopes for further strengthening the bilateral cooperation between the two countries.

They also exchanged views on the situation in Ukraine and the international oil market. Yoshimasa thanked Prince Faisal for supply of oil from Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi FM said the Kingdom is committed to assuring a stable supply of oil to Japan.

The two ministers also agreed to further promote cooperation in moving towards the realization of carbon-neutrality through the utilization and promotion of clean energy.

Originally published in Arab News Japan


KSRelief launches humanitarian campaigns in Yemen, Lebanon and Pakistan

KSRelief launches humanitarian campaigns in Yemen, Lebanon and Pakistan
Updated 27 September 2022

KSRelief launches humanitarian campaigns in Yemen, Lebanon and Pakistan

KSRelief launches humanitarian campaigns in Yemen, Lebanon and Pakistan
  • KSRelief’s Project Masam has so far dismantled 359,626 mines since its inception
  • KSRelief’s 8th and 9th aid planes arrived in Karachi

DUBAI: The King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSRelief) launched on Saturday a campaign to combat malaria in Yemen.
KSRelief’s aid efforts were carried out by its implementing partner, the World Health Organization, according to a report by state agency SPA.
The relief organization also dismantled 763 mines across Yemen in one week. These included 93 anti-personnel mines, 335 anti-tank mines, 333 unexploded ordnance and 2 explosive devices.
KSRelief’s Project Masam has so far dismantled 359,626 mines since its inception.
The humanitarian center also extended its relief efforts to Lebanon by distributing 300 food baskets to refugees and host communities in the country.
This came within KSRelief’s project to provide food security for Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, the relief center’s teams have worked tirelessly to support people affected by the floods in Pakistan.

KSRelief has lately sent its 8th and 9th aid planes to Karachi, carrying 60 tons of shelter materials and food baskets for 8,424 beneficiaries.

The aid, which comes as part of the air bridge that the center has earlier established for flood-hit communities, will be distributed across Pakistan based on the need.

On Saturday, as many as 1,520 food baskets were distributed in the Sindh and Punjab provinces, benefiting 10,640 people, reported SPA.


Popstar Jason Derulo lauds AlUla’s unique ‘blend of worlds’

Popstar Jason Derulo lauds AlUla’s unique ‘blend of worlds’
Updated 27 September 2022

Popstar Jason Derulo lauds AlUla’s unique ‘blend of worlds’

Popstar Jason Derulo lauds AlUla’s unique ‘blend of worlds’
  • Singer says Saudi Arabia becoming world’s most attractive destination

ALULA: In the historical epicenter for cross-cultural exchange, between the majestic mountains of AlUla, popstar Jason Derulo took the stage to deliver a performance unlike any other at the second edition of the Azimuth music festival on Saudi National Day last weekend.

The American artist entranced the crowd with some of his most recent hits, including “Swalla” and “Jelebi Baby,” as well as some of his older fan favorites such as “Solo” and “In My Head.”

The concert took place in the same valley that hosted the contemporary art exhibition Desert X earlier this year, ensuring a special music experience for nationals and visitors alike in celebration of the Kingdom’s 92nd National Day.

American Popstar Jason Derulo performing to a Saudi audience in celebration of the 92nd National Day at the Azimuth festival in AlUla, which took place from Sept. 22-24. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

“Any time you can come to a place and have an experience … it makes the show so much better because it’s something that’s completely different that you can’t get anywhere else,” Derulo told Arab News in an exclusive interview.

Historically known as a strategic crossroads for trade and pilgrimage routes, the settlement conceals hidden gems such as the narrow valley oasis and the unique Elephant Rock. As part of the Madinah province, AlUla is a symbol of the cultural richness found throughout the eastern region of Saudi Arabia and beyond.

Any time that I can spread the word about how incredible this place is, I jump at the opportunity, and this is another one of those opportunities.

Jason Derulo

“Coming through the rock and all the sand, it’s almost like it’s a hideaway from everything, and to bring all of this luxury to the middle of the desert is unlike any other experience,” he said.

“Here you get to really see all the stars, you get to see all the rock, the mountains, you get a piece of that world. Then you bring the highest level of luxury to it and it’s just a blend of worlds that you can’t get anywhere else,” Derulo added.

American Popstar Jason Derulo performing to a Saudi audience in celebration of the 92nd National Day at the Azimuth festival in AlUla, which took place from Sept. 22-24. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

Derulo has performed throughout the region, headlining in Saudi for the first time in 2018 at the Saudia Diriyah E-Prix alongside Enrique Iglesias, The Black Eyed Peas, and Egypt’s Amr Diab.

“I’ve been performing for a very long time and I can say that this experience was unique, unlike any experience I’ve ever had. I’ve performed all over the world and even coming here today, I pulled out my phone — I was like, ‘this is amazing,’” he said.

The three-day Azimuth festival is one of several initiatives, forming part of Vision 2030, to position the Kingdom as a tourism hub.

FASTFACTS

• The American artist entranced the crowd with some of his most recent hits, including ‘Swalla’ and ‘Jelebi Baby,’ as well as some of his older fan favorites such as ‘Solo’ and ‘In My Head.’

• The concert took place in the same valley that hosted the contemporary art exhibition Desert X earlier this year, ensuring a special music experience for nationals and visitors alike in celebration of the Kingdom’s 92nd National Day.

• Jason Derulo commended the efforts made to globalize local talent and create new avenues for entertainment, recalling his performance during the professional LIV Golf tour, financed by the Public Investment Fund.

“I was actually one of the first performers, if not the first performer, that performed with an integrated crowd between men and women here, and I feel honored and blessed to be a small piece of history.”

“Any time that I can spread the word about how incredible this place is, I jump at the opportunity, and this is another one of those opportunities,” Derulo said.

“I love that people from across the world have come here and made this home because it really is a special place. They have a sense of pride, a small piece of ownership even, you would think that they were from here and they know so much about the history,” he added.

The artist believes that Saudi Arabia is on the verge of becoming one of the “biggest” attractions in the world.

“This is something that’s just starting, though people are just now starting to see it, I’m sure this has been in the works for such a long time. There’s still so much room for growth, but it’s already incredible,” he said.

Bringing in a diverse lineup of both local and international artists was a key goal for the event, collaborated by entertainment festival MDLBEAST and the Royal Commission for AlUla.

Ahmed Alammary, the Saudi DJ and chief creative at MDLBEAST, told Arab News that this celebration was a chance to create cultural exchange opportunities with international artists while also catering to a local audience.

Derulo commended the efforts made to globalize local talent and create new avenues for entertainment, recalling his performance during the professional LIV Golf tour, financed by the Public Investment Fund.

“This is becoming a melting pot, and it’s beautiful to see … I think Saudi is really pushing the envelope in terms of tourism and technology. When you think of arts when you think of entertainment, Saudi has become really high up on the list because they really took a stand and really took a giant leap in that world,” Derulo said.

 


Who’s Who: Mishaal Ashemimry, vice president of the International Astronautical Federation

Mishaal Ashemimry
Mishaal Ashemimry
Updated 26 September 2022

Who’s Who: Mishaal Ashemimry, vice president of the International Astronautical Federation

Mishaal Ashemimry

Saudi engineer Mishaal Ashemimry is the newly elected vice president of the International Astronautical Federation, becoming the first Saudi woman to hold the position after receiving 14 majority votes from international representatives.

Her role as one of the federation’s 12 vice presidents enables her to further the development of the space sector globally and consolidate the direction of the IAF.

As a Saudi woman and the first aerospace engineer in the Gulf Cooperation Council, her position strategically places the Kingdom at the forefront of the industry and highlights the country as a global leader in the field.

Since September 2021, Ashemimry has served as special advisor to the CEO of the Saudi Space Commission Mohammed Al-Tamimi, a position in which she consults on developing a national space strategy, creates and leads space programs, and advises leadership on direction and execution.

Ashemimry was previously a space nuclear technology consultant at the aerospace and defense company Northrop Grumman. She also conducted research funded by the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center during her time as a research assistant at the Florida Institute of Technology

At 26 years old, the engineer was also president and CEO of her own aerospace company, MISHAAL Aerospace, established in 2010. The company developed space rockets, designed and launched its own line of cost-effective rockets titled the “M-rocket” series, completed static tests for hybrid rocket propulsion systems and provided global consultation.

In 2015, Ashemimry won the Inspirational Woman of the Year Award at the Arab Women Awards and in 2018 was awarded for her scientific achievements by King Salman.

She received her bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics and aerospace engineering in 2006 and her master’s degree in aerospace engineering in 2007, both from the Florida Institute of technology.

She is a certified Nitrox, rescue and open water diver, a commercial pilot and is trained in real space flight conditions of zero-gravity.

Ashemimry is an expert in aerodynamics, missile and rocket stage separation analysis, vehicle design, wind tunnel testing, simulations and analysis, and computational tool development.

 


Volunteers clear litter from hiking routes near Jeddah

Volunteers collected over 4,000 plastic bottles, 1,000 cans, and glass shards collected from hiking trails in Asfan. (Supplied)
Volunteers collected over 4,000 plastic bottles, 1,000 cans, and glass shards collected from hiking trails in Asfan. (Supplied)
Updated 26 September 2022

Volunteers clear litter from hiking routes near Jeddah

Volunteers collected over 4,000 plastic bottles, 1,000 cans, and glass shards collected from hiking trails in Asfan. (Supplied)
  • Over 4,000 plastic bottles, 1,000 cans, glass shards collected
  • Earth Trails focuses on environmentally friendly life, says GM

JEDDAH: Volunteers from a local tourism group recently cleared heaps of garbage from hiking trails in Asfan as part of their social responsibility commitments, and to ensure a pristine environment for outdoor enthusiasts.

Asfan is a small city surrounded by hiking trails running through its unique terrain and striking rock formations, making it a favorite destination for people living in Jeddah.

The cleanup was undertaken by Earth Trails, a company licensed by the Saudi Tourism Ministry, that specializes in hiking tours and trips around the Kingdom.

Dr. Shadi Badawood, the general manager of Earth Trails, said: “Natural trails in Saudi Arabia need more attention by all nature enthusiasts and the public.” This initiative would hopefully inspire people to keep the country’s natural spaces clean, he said.

FASTFACT

Dr. Shadi Badawood, the general manager of Earth Trails, said plastic takes 450 years to decompose, aluminum 80 years, and glass one million years.

Earth Trails’ members collected more than 4,000 plastic bottles, over 1,000 aluminum cans, and a significant number of glass shards. Badawood said plastic takes 450 years to decompose, aluminum 80 years, and glass one million years.

“It is part of our responsibility to take the initiative to clean up these trails, and encourage other individuals to follow in our steps,” Badawood said. Many people do not realize how much they are harming the environment by littering, he said.

Around 25 volunteers participated in the initiative. Badawood said he was pleased with the turnout and hopes the next event will attract more participants.

“We do have a number of volunteering members who really love nature and we admire their actions (to) take care of the environment, and we encourage them to learn new ways to sustain the ecosystem around us,” said Sarah Fida, volunteer coordinator at Earth Trails.

Muath Al-Ahmadi, a volunteer, said: “I’m a nature enthusiast and I believe that one of the most significant points about the cleanup initiatives is awareness. The participation in such programs with hiking groups is a big step towards a more sustainable and environmentally friendly life.” Seeing the amount of waste on the trails should make people “rethink” their consumption, Al-Ahmadi added.

Another volunteer, Yousef Albouq, said: “When I joined … I felt excited and happy. I think events like this will contribute to reducing waste, and I hope such initiatives of Earth Trails will … raise people’s awareness of putting trash in the right place.”

He said those who willingly contributed their time showed how committed they are to protecting the environment.