By Michael Casey
Several thousand feet up on a jagged escarpment overlooking the Arabian Sea, Hadi al-Hikmani has come searching for a shy and reclusive creature. The Arabian leopard, the last remaining big cat in the Middle East, is almost invisible in the canyons and dry riverbeds of Oman. So even a growl or a scratch mark would satisfy the conservationist. But al-Hikmani looks set to go home empty-handed as he has so many times after his treks across the Dhofar mountains in the Jebel Samhan Nature Reserve of southern Oman.
Then his luck turns.
"Here we go!" yells al-Hikmani as he comes upon a pile of leopard droppings that appears several weeks old. He and a colleague bag the waste, which later will be genetically analyzed to help determine the leopard population in the area as well as the prey. This leopard seemed to have a taste for porcupines, small rodents and hyrax, a plump, rock-dwelling mammal.
A few hundred feet up the path, further good news. One of the more than 25 camera traps that dot these mountains caught an image of a leopard — its pale coat dotted with black rosettes and spots standing out against the darkness. It was just a bit larger than a golden retriever and was the first one caught on camera for several months.
"It's a good indication that the leopard is still using this area," said 30-year-old al-Hikmani, who works for the Oman government's Arabian leopard project and wears a traditional Omani headdress over Western hiking attire. "Maybe one day we will come up here and won't even see any leopards. So we are quite excited."
For conservationists, these are small victories in the race to save a species.
Once thriving across the Middle East, the Arabian Leopard is now considered critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. More....