AlUla Stories

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“To keep its place in the mountains, the leopard needs to find a place in people's hearts and minds,” nature conservationist Zainab Almubarak begins. It’s an important point – that to foster enough support to save a species, you have to not only raise awareness, but also make people fall in love with the animal. Fortunately, with the magnificent Arabian Leopard, that part of the story is not such a challenging task.

And it was certainly easy for Zainab to become smitten. “I think the Arabian Leopard is the most graceful and the most beautiful of all animals,” she smiles, “and it is an honour to work with them every day.” But her love of animals, and felines in particular, goes back a long way.

“I’ve always had a passion towards animals. My parents were always animal lovers, and I was born in a house full of cats,” Zainab explains. “I've always considered them as part of my family. That's the main reason why I got into conservation, it's just because of my love of cats, basically,” she laughs.
Zainab AlMubarak

Saving the Species

“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.
Saving the Species

A Connection to the Past

Evidence that these magnificent creatures used to inhabit this land millennia ago can be witnessed on ancient carvings, too, in places like Jabal Ikmah. So their restoration will forge an important link with the past. “It is amazing how humans and animals used to interact thousands of years ago,” says Zainab, “and you can see that in rock art around AlUla.”

With the perfect environment in which for them to thrive, it is almost as if the AlUla desert is waiting for the return of these wonderful creatures. “AlUla has a great habitat that is very suitable for the Arabian Leopards to be released there,” Zainab explains, “you can imagine, one day the Arabian Leopard just roaming freely between those mountains. It's going to be so special.”

Zainab is also the first female Saudi to work in conservation and wildlife, which she acknowledges as an important milestone. “It is very humbling to be an inspiration to young females,” she shares, “women working in conservation have more chances now and I can see that the awareness of the importance of conservation, animals, saving species, it's just increasing and people now care more.”

“In protecting these wild animals were also protecting ourselves,” she reflects, “I feel like we're making history.” They are making history, and at the same time creating a future for these elusive and magnificent creatures.

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