I jump as a gunshot goes off, then another. Waleed Al’Rail, an Arabian Leopard researcher, looks at me calmingly. “Don’t worry, it’s probably aimed at a Rock Hyrax”, he says, as if that would make me feel better.
Waleed and I find ourselves in the Hawf Protected Area at the border of Yemen and Oman. Waleed has been studying the critically endangered Arabian Leopard in this unique ecosystem. Due to an escarpment right next to the coast and the seasonal monsoons, a cloud forest persists here. Beyond the initial mountain range, the climate becomes dry and the desert takes over.
This is not the only biologically interesting area in Yemen, some of them are probably still undiscovered, but they are most definitely under appreciated by the local as well as the international audience. Due to its geographical location, Yemen has many endemic plants while also supporting animals found in Africa as well as Asia.
We come up to a small trail camera Waleed as placed in this gulley a few weeks ago. After replacing the batteries, he checks to see what animals took their own picture after setting off the motion detector. An Arabian Caracal and a Small-spotted Genet pop up on the camera screen, proof that this area still supports mid-sized predators.
I ask Waleed when he got the last picture of an Arabian Leopard, the areas apex predator. He sadly states that there hasn’t been a picture of a leopard since February of 2011. The leopard exemplifies the continuing story of wildlife in Yemen. In all of the Arabian Peninsula there are probably less than 150 leopards left, in Yemen most likely less than fifty.
As with the leopard, all other wildlife continually faces severe threats. Hunting pressures are enorm, if it is in sight, it is shot. Additionally, increased roads provide better access to hunters to formerly inaccessible nature areas. Overgrazing by camels, cows, sheep, and goats leave less for native herbivores. Logging of trees destroys the dense cover needed by many species and pollution, specifically trash that is thrown anywhere and everywhere, can cause direct harm to animals.
Can these animals be saved in a country that has a tough time staying on its own two feet? David Stanton, the founder of the Foundation for the Protection of the Arabian Leopard in Yemen, thinks it is possible. David, an American, has long lived here and understands how the country works. That becomes quickly apparent when we meet with the local minister of environment and the governance of the region. David stays respectful but pushes his points and ideals, stressing how important it is to save the leopard in the region. By the time we walk out of the meeting, David has secured the permissions to keep working in the area.
Stanton thinks that by increasing public awareness both locally and globally and by lobbying for the establishment of protected areas in Yemen can there be a chance for the leopard. He also knows that if the leopard is saved, an animal that needs extremely large areas (one male may have a territory of 250 square miles), will all smaller animals using those same areas be protected.
The biggest problem may be enforcing the protection laws in a country where few rules seem to exist, let alone be followed. The Hawf Protected Area is protected, yet there are no rangers, guards, wildlife wardens, or any kind of authority managing the reserve. Without any infrastructure, many more gunshots will go off, many more animals will be killed. With hope, David’s organization will bring the necessary change for the amazing wildlife that this country has to offer.