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Saving the Leopard

The Arabian Leopard is almost extinct - fewer than 200 remain in the wild. But a project in Yemen aims to change this, learning from neighbour Oman.

The Arabian Leopard, one of the rarest of the big cats, is on the verge of extinction. Once prolific across the Arabian Peninsula, fewer than two hundred are thought to remain in the wild. Oman has a small, well-monitored population – but leopards don’t recognise national borders and in neighbouring, volatile Yemen, conservation and environmental protection are largely theoretical concepts. Yemen is seen as key in attempts to protect and enlarge leopard stocks across the region; in 2008 it even adopted the leopard as its national animal. But in a country riven by tribal warfare and extremist activity, where the animals have traditionally been hunted as predators or sold into the lucrative supply chain to private zoos elsewhere in Arabia, chances of success would seem to be slim.

In November 2010, a small group of Yemeni students will travel to Oman to train as wardens, in the first stage of a tentative leopard conservation programme kick-started by the Yemeni Environment Minister Abdulrahman Al Eryani and American environmentalist David Stanton. Among the young men taking part is Ibrahim al Qahzem, whose father, Hussain, was himself a leopard hunter. From poacher to gamekeeper within one generation, Ibrahim symbolises the crossroads at which Yemenis now find themselves – the indefinable and uncertain benefits of conservation coming up sharp against centuries-old traditions and tribal mores, and a lucrative poaching trade offering economic security in a country where the average Yemeni earns less than $1,000 a year.

There is a very real danger that within the students’ lifetimes the Arabian Leopard will disappear from the wild for good. This film tracks Ibrahim and the other students’ progress from Yemen through their training programme in Jebel Samhan in the remote mountains of Oman. How far are these young men prepared to defy traditional attitudes – that “the only good leopard is a dead leopard”? How are they inspired by the experienced conservationists who train them to survey leopards scientifically – looking for tracks and scratch marks, and setting camera traps? Are their motivations genuinely idealistic, or is there a danger that the rewards of poaching will ultimately prove more enticing than conservation?


Commissioned by Al Jazeera - Witness.

Produced by Kevin Rushby and Richard Johns, directed by Tom Evans.