Tailing Arabia’s Last Leopards: An Environmental Reporting Road Trip through Yemen (Part I)
Early this spring, I joined a weeklong expedition through Yemen’s Haraz Mountains and Western Highlands to track the Arabian leopard – one of the rarest animals in the world. This month, I’ll be publishing a five-part series detailing the 1,000-kilometer journey that took me from rusted-out pickup trucks with rifle-wielding mango farmers to cave-homes hewn out of sheer cliffs in search of the elusive big cat. With stories of extremism and conflict dominating media coverage of Yemen, take a rare inside look at the ecological surprises nestled amidst the country’s isolated valleys as I investigate the barrage of threats assailing some of the most remote and least studied natural environments on the planet.
Part I: Sana’a
Our tires had been slashed.
Standing on the edge of the Old City, the five of us squinted through the darkness at our beaten up Suzuki while inky midnight hues enveloped our huddled group. We let minutes ghost by in silence as though our stillness might coax the embattled SUV to spontaneously reinflate its own tires.
It was a miracle we desperately needed right about then.
At the crack of dawn a mere five hours away, this team of environmental researchers from Yemen’s Foundation for Endangered Wildlife (FEW) was due to depart Sana’a for a weeklong fieldwork expedition. I was set to join them as they snaked through formidable terrain gathering any evidence of the Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr) – one of the rarest animals on the planet – among the daunting ranges and secluded valleys of the Haraz Mountains and Western Highlands.
Four years earlier, similar fieldwork in Hawf – a distant eastern region along the Omani border – yielded spectacular results: FEW researchers recorded the first photographic evidence in history of the critically endangered animal in Yemen. It was a landmark moment for the preservation of the Arabian leopard – a majestic big cat that once roamed the entire Arabian Peninsula, Egyptian Sinai, and parts of the Levant as little as a half century ago. Before FEW’s work in Hawf, scientists thought that a sustained population probably only remained in a smallsouthern corner of Oman. And though fewer than 250 leopards survive today, FEW’s work had given a little more hope for the animal’s survival by proving that its habitat still extended into Yemen – albeit just barely…
Read more here.