Tailing Arabia’s Last Leopards: An Environmental Reporting Road Trip through Yemen (Part V – Final Installment)
In early 2014, 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 is the conclusion to my 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 V – Final Installment: Ibb, Yemen
We chased the light of dawn over each crest in the mountain, hunting for any stray beams of sun that might peak over a ridge before darting behind another rocky outcropping. As our car journeyed higher into the mountain range, we watched the faint gray outlines of men fixing bundles along the edge of the steep switchbacks in the road. Dr. Al-Duais slowed to a crawl as one hulking figure pierced the early morning mist, approaching our car with a bulging satchel and a toothless smile.
After exchanging extended Islamic greetings and a couple of coins, Al-Duais passed the large bundle back to us. Dirt crumbled between my fingers as I opened the dewy bag, filling the car with a sweet, earthy smell. Carrots. The leafy greens atop the vegetables bounced and swayed as Al-Duais sped off again and reached back to grab a particularly hefty one from the bag.
“The best vegetables in the country are here!” Al-Duais grinned before taking a large bite.
Despite the pervasive mist and the early morning hour, Al-Duais was in high spirits, pointing through the haze to each new type of plant he could spot lining the road or tucked into the valleys below us. Fennel. Anise. Euphorbia. “Smell them all!” he encouraged, rolling down the windows with haste, lest we should miss the unique aroma of any particular bouquet.
After a nearly 1,000-kilometer journey, we were nearing our final stop: Ibb, a wet, fertile region of Yemen cradled 2,000 meters high by the immense Southern Mountains. For Al-Duais, who was born and raised in Ibb, it was the lushness of this province that first inspired his love of biology.
But as Yemen struggles with a plummeting water table and the population of the Ibb governorate swells past 2.5 million, the so-called “Green City” is becoming less “green” and more “city.” And for the Arabian leopard, this means that time is running out: despite its omnipresence in the oral history of elder hillside farmers, the animal hasn’t been definitively spotted in Ibb in a decade.
Read the conclusion to this series here.