Tailing Arabia’s Last Leopards: An Environmental Reporting Road Trip through Yemen (Part II)
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 II: Wadi Sharis, Hajjah, Yemen
Well after dark, we arrived in Hajjah choking on diesel fumes.
The stench of burning fuel hung heavy in the air – opening our car doors, we pulled keffiyehs up over our stinging nostrils to ward off the fetid haze. Deafening growls belched out of generators that lined the streets, rumbling across the thick concrete sprawl of the hilltop town. That morning, as we breezed north from gridlocked Sana’a, we had left one power cut behind. One-hundred and fifty kilometers to the west – and nine hours later – we were greeted by the same low, wounded moan of old engines puffing filth into the sky.
Our arrival was later than we had anticipated. Nestled 1,800 meters high amidst some of the tallest peaks of the Haraz Mountains, Hajjah’s strategic location as a fortified stronghold of the former Imamate made sense: reaching the town was a precarious journey by any standards. Even traversing the modern asphalt road that dangled over the craggy range proved perilous – with no shoulders or guardrails, each tight switchback served as a reminder that just one careless turn meant careening off into an abyss. Between unrelenting white-knuckle driving, a blown tire, and a back-road bypass to avoid the security situation in Amran, it had been a long day. Fortunately, our time spent among the pungent generators of Hajjah was only for a night’s stopover.
Early the next morning, the team would head down the edge of the mountain into Wadi Sharis, a secluded valley east of town. There, in 2009, FEW associates found Arabian leopard scat, positively identified through DNA testing. The discovery had built momentum for the nascent organization after their success in lobbying the government to declare the Arabian leopard as Yemen’s national animal. But as an insurgency strengthened in nearby Amran and the fever pitch of the revolution’s political and social unrest limited FEW’s ability to mine for additional funding, the team pulled the plug on their exploratory Sharis research in 2011 to focus their limited resources in Hawf. But now – half a decade after they had found the last definitive proof of the leopard in the region – the foundation was hoping for another miracle in proving that the elusive animal still roamed this far west in Yemen.
Read more here.