Conservationists strive to conserve the Arabian leopard in Oman

Submitted by admin on 17/06/2014

Hadi Al Hikmani is a wildlife specialist with the Office for Conservation of the Environment, Diwan of Royal Court, Oman, and leading researcher on the Arabian leopard project.

The  Arabian leopard Panthera pardus nimr is a critically endangered subspecies that inhabits the mountains of  the Arabian Peninsula.  However, the population is in decline with the last strongholds for the subspecies in Yemen and the Sultanate of Oman.  The principal threats to the leopard are persecution, often in response to  livestock killing,  and the loss of habitat and key  prey species. 

However, the Omani government is taking steps to protect the Arabian leopard in the mountains of Dhofar. A protected area was established in 1997 to safeguard the leopards of Jabal Samhan and the Arabian Leopard Survey was launched the same year to study the leopard throughout Dhofar. The Survey has obtained baseline information on the distribution, population and ecology of the leopard and a National Action Plan for its conservation was drafted early in 2014. 

Fieldwork is ongoing to obtain more robust data on the Arabian leopard population of the Dhofar mountains.  This winter we deployed sixty camera traps at 30 sites across Jabal Qamar in western Dhofar to better understand  leopard numbers and the relative abundance of other large mammal species.  In addition we are collecting scat samples for DNA and diet analysis.  By combining camera  trapping and molecular scatology we hope to determine the state of the leopard population in Dhofar including its genetic health.     

In 2013, supported by the Oman Earthwatch Programme, I worked with DICE scientists Simon Tollington, Simon Black and Jim Groombridge on a feasibility study for a longer term study of the genetics of Oman’s leopard population.  Over 50 scat samples were sent for DNA extraction and the team were  able to obtain some DNA from these samples.  Fifteen  microsatellite primers that work on domestic cat and Sumatran tiger were confirmed to work with the Arabian leopard. Work is now underway to amplify this set of microsatellite in all the scat samples. 

The project team is joined this month by Masters student Lawrence Ball from the University of Exeter who is researching local livestock grazing systems and their relationship to the biodiversity of the proposed protected area in Wadi Sayq, Jabal Qamar.  The unique monsoon or cloud forest ecosystems are threatened by rapidly increasing numbers of domestic livestock that have for many years exceeded the carry capacity of the mountains.  They outcompete wild medium-sized herbivores and consequently  increase the likelihood of livestock killing by wild carnivores, in particular the Arabian leopard. We hope that Lawrence's work will help with conservation planning in Wadi Sayq.

The Arabian leopard project team includes more than 20 wildlife rangers who work throughout the Dhofar mountains. Thanks to the generous support of the Anglo-Omani Society three of these  rangers are currently in Canterbury studying English language; as a first step to attending professional conservation courses.  

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