“The first time I saw a leopard, I still remember the feeling,” Zainab recalls fondly, “I was breath-taken. The patterns on their bodies, their big eyes, they are truly unique. Leopards represent beauty, strength, charisma and independence.”
While no leopards are prowling the AlUla landscape quite yet, the species is endemic to the Arabian Peninsula and plays an important part in its ecosystem. Like many of their kind, however, they are endangered largely because of loss of habitat and decline in prey due to human activity. Fewer than 200 Arabian Leopards today remain in the wild.
“We are working really hard to save this endangered species,” Zainab stresses, beginning with the introduction of a stable population of prey for the leopard. This is a “crucial step to the reintroduction of the Arabian Leopard”, she explains. In the meantime, they are engaged in a captive breeding programme to boost numbers – also a critical goal before being able to re-establish a population of wild leopards. And it’s going well – their oldest and most successful breeding pair has produced nine cubs to date. “They are saving the species for sure,” she smiles, and “this means that we are on the right path in trying to save the species from going extinct.”
The introduction of the Arabian Leopard is part of a broader project to re-establish diverse flora and fauna in AlUla’s wilderness. For example, the ongoing mission focused around the Sharaan Nature Reserve
is to restore, protect and conserve the sensitive ecosystem native to AlUla. This 1,500 square kilometres of stunning canyons, desert and valleys is already a welcoming sanctuary for a wide range of species including endangered Arabian wolves, gazelles and large-eared red foxes that are already again roaming these beautiful lands.
Sharaan Nature Reserve is in fact just one of six nature reserves AlUla is home to, covering a total of 12,500 square kilometres. The Wadi Nakhlah, Harrat AlZabin and Harrat Uwayrid reserves have all been identified as potential future habitats for Arabian Leopards. The extensive rewilding of native species of flora is also underway, to restore balance to the natural environment and provide food for herbivores, the leopard’s main prey.