Tailing Arabia’s Last Leopards: An Environmental Reporting Road Trip through Yemen (Part IV)
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. Join this 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 IV: Jebel Bura, Hodeidah, Yemen
It felt like something out of a zombie film.
Leaping out from the depths of a boulder-strewn ditch, a hulking baboon scrambled up the hood of our car and released a mighty, agitated scream. I hastily rolled up my passenger window as the bullish figure squatted down in front of us, his piercing cry still ringing through both of my ears.
Sitting in stalemate along a wide bank of eroding asphalt, I nervously eyed a prominent crack running the length of our windshield, imaging 70 pounds of unbridled aggression smashing through the glass. That couldn’t happen, I tried to reassure myself in the jittery silence. But only once he scurried down our bumper a few moments later did I finally let go of my white-knuckled grip on the armrest. We watched in silence as the baboon joined a troupe of six others darting past our car.
As we tentatively continued our drive deeper into the valley forest, we soon rounded a sharp bend and found the source of the commotion – a convoy of two Yemeni families stood in the middle of the road 10 meters ahead, throwing packets of potato chips onto the tarmac for a congress of baboons. Over a dozenHamadryas had assembled – with several more still scurrying in from different directions – including one that hurled itself from the overhead canopy to a spot mere inches from a small, gleeful toddler. Dumbfounded, we watched as a scrawny adolescent girl took a moment to snap a photo and adjust her niqabbefore kicking the monkey away from the boy.
Though this scene could have understandably been mistaken as some kind of petting zoo gone terribly wrong, we were actually in Jebel Bura – an isolated granite mastiff 60 kilometers southeast of Jebel Milhan and the closest thing Yemen has to a bona fide national park. The importance of this woodland is difficult to overstate: Bura is home to a dazzling array of both endemic flora and rare migratory fauna, and – outside of Hawf Forest in extreme eastern Yemen where FEW captured the only photographic proof of the leopard in the country – it’s also the largest forest in all of Yemen. But the fact that a relatively modest 4500-hectare region holds this distinction speaks volumes on the scarcity of this ecology: indeed, Hawf, Bura, and Milhan are three of the very last viable forests left in the Arabian Peninsula.
Read more here.