In the deserts and mountains of Saudi Arabia, Panthera supports the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) to search for and restore the Critically Endangered Arabian leopard to the country’s last wild refuges. Panthera’s team trek the rugged hillsides setting camera traps in hope of glimpsing the elusive tail of this highly endangered big cat. Follow Ross de Bruin, a Panthera field researcher and photographer, as he shares his experience and photos in this harsh terrain.
One of the most challenging aspects of our work is the physical toll it takes on our bodies. The rugged hillsides and scorching temperatures make each step a painful reminder of the harsh conditions. Despite this, the excitement of potentially spotting a leopard keeps me motivated.
Our daily routine revolves around navigating the challenging desert landscape, where we encounter obstacles like rugged rocks, treacherous sand and sticky mud that may hinder our progress. Unfortunately, our vehicle occasionally becomes trapped in the deep sand, which forces us to dedicate hours of effort to liberate it from its predicament.
During our journeys, we encounter various livestock, including camels, sheep, goats, and donkeys. While these animals are not our primary focus, they provide an important context for the conservation efforts. Establishing a harmonious coexistence between Arabian leopards and the local communities is essential for their successful reintroduction into the wild.
As we venture further into the wilderness, we are greeted by diverse wildlife. Hamadryas baboons, hyraxes and Arabian wolves are just a few of the incredible creatures we encounter. However, sighting the caracal, another cat species in this region, remains a rarity.
The sight of threatened ungulates such as Arabian oryx, Nubian ibex, and gazelles brings us hope. Restoring healthy populations of leopard prey is a crucial step in preparing for the reintroduction of Arabian leopards into their natural habitat.
Even rarer than wolves are threatened ungulates. Although I have been fortunate enough to capture photos of human-led releases of oryx, ibex and gazelle, I have only caught a glimpse of a solitary wild ibex dashing through the rugged terrain. My anticipation grows as RCU strive to replenish the dwindling populations of Arabian leopard prey, such as gazelles, in their natural habitat. The ultimate goal is to establish stable populations of these prey species before the Arabian leopards, bred in captivity, venture into the wild.
Our camera traps are strategically placed on mountain trails, giving us a glimpse into the elusive world of leopards. Although the treacherous terrain poses risks with its steep drop-offs and loose scree and rocks, it also conceals hidden perils in the form of venomous snakes and scorpions. Furthermore, this challenging landscape presents remarkable opportunities for encountering awe-inspiring reptiles, as I vividly recall my thrilling encounter with a massive cobra. My teammate and I sat beneath as it coiled around a tree, only showing its presence when we got up to leave. It was the biggest cobra I’d seen in my life — of course, I had to take a photo! Our teams would go on to encounter many more cobras, all of them peaceful encounters.
After hours of arduous hiking, we finally reached our destination, eager to collect the camera traps and search for evidence of leopards. Our team held a friendly competition to be the one that set the camera that catches a leopard. Our dedication was unwavering for three field seasons, each of which took us to new locations in which it was believed there were leopards.
Saudi Arabia is home to over 2,000 remarkable and historical rock-art sites. However, the most significant cluster of Neolithic petroglyphs, exemplifying the oldest known carvings that date back 10,000 years, can be found in the country's northern region. These exceptional sites are situated 300 kilometers apart, residing within the captivating Hail Province. Discovering ancient rock carvings depicting human-leopard interactions reminds us of our mission to restore this subspecies and honor its cultural significance.
As we return to camp, the breathtaking views of the wadis serve as a reminder of the beauty and potential secrets this wilderness holds, making us wonder if an Arabian leopard is silently observing our every move.
Despite the challenges we face the lessons learned during my time in Saudi Arabia are invaluable, and I look forward to continuing this journey of discovery.
Though the days may be long and exhausting and our encounters with leopards remain but a dream, I am prepared to capture the perfect picture of a wild Arabian leopard when that day arrives.
Learn more about RCU’s Arabian Leopard Initiative.