A rare Arabian leopard cub has been born, fueling hope for the survival of one of the world’s most critically endangered animal species, the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) reported.
It is thought that only 200 of the smallest member of the leopard family remain in the wild after centuries of habitat loss and human conflict.
The female cub was born in April at the Arabian Leopard Breeding Center in Taif, Saudi Arabia as part of a special breeding program run by the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU). The cub’s gender identification and first health check took place in July, and her birth is now being revealed to the world.
RCU is transforming a vast the vast wildernesses of the AlUla area in north-west Saudi Arabia, with 80% becoming nature reserves with habitats specifically designed to allow the Arabian leopard to thrive.
The RCU plans to increase the leopard’s numbers through its captive-breeding program before re-introducing more of the species into the wild at AlUla. A crucial part of the plan will see a build-up of the Arabian leopard’s prey, including Nubian ibex, red-necked ostrich, and Idmi gazelles.
Among many other Arabian leopard Initiatives, the RCU is expanding the breeding program with the opening of a new state-of-the-art center in early 2024 as part of Sharaan Nature Reserve in the AlUla region, while also donating US$25 million towards the new Arabian Leopard Fund.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature says the species is “critically endangered,” which means it is at an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild, where it is only believed to now exist in three countries: Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen.
Known as as An Nimr Al ’Arabi’ in Arabic, the Arabian leopard has long represented beauty, tranquility, physical strength, fearlessness and freedom, and has held a special place in the imagination for millennia, featuring in ancient rock art, stories and even everyday expressions. It arrived in Arabia almost 500,000 years ago when it emerged out of Africa and despite originally being a mountain animal it became the only true desert leopard as desertification spread over a period of centuries.
Cubs are born after a gestation period of 13 weeks, with one or two cubs in a typical litter. Cubs stay in the den during the first weeks of life. After the suckling period has finished, their mother leads them to kills and teaches them to hunt. They remain for their mother with a year or more – until they are ready to fend for themselves.
The Arabian leopard is the smallest member of the leopard family. Its top weight of about 30kg is half that of its African cousin. It arrived in Arabia almost 500,000 years ago when it emerged out of Africa, journeying either via the Great Rift Valley to reach the mountains of Jordan and Israel in the north or via the Gate of Tears to arrive in Yemen in the south. Originally it was a mountain animal but as desertification spread over a period of centuries, it became the only true desert leopard.
Historically its diet included the Nubian ibex, a type of mountain goat; the Arabian tahr, also a goat-like creature; the diminutive rock hyrax; and when these were not to be found it would eat partridge, hares, hedgehogs, beetles and even porcupines. Unlike the cheetah that relies on speed, the leopard is a stalk-and-pounce predator. Its slender build with an elongated body, short but powerful legs, and very long tail, used for balance, make it the perfect hunter in the mountains where it stalks to within a few meters of its quarry before pouncing. The black rosettes of its coat serve as camouflage, melting into the shadows as it pads along.
One of the earliest depictions of the leopard (500 BCE), in alabaster, is from the very ancient Sabaean Kingdom believed to be the biblical land of Sheba. It showed a leopard jumping down from rocks onto the back of an ibex. Leopards from northern Arabia, or Arabia Petraea, caught the Romans’ attention and were among the first exotic animals brought to ancient Rome to fight the bestiarii – gladiators trained in fighting wild beasts.
Located 1,100km from Riyadh in north-west Saudi Arabia, AlUla is a place of extraordinary natural and human heritage. The vast area, covering 22,561km², includes a lush oasis valley, towering sandstone mountains and ancient cultural heritage sites dating back thousands of years.
The most well-known and recognized site in AlUla is Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. A 52-hectare ancient city, Hegra was the principal southern city of the Nabataean Kingdom and is comprised of nearly 100 well-preserved tombs with elaborate facades cut into sandstone outcrops. Current research suggests Hegra was the most southern outpost of the Romans after conquering the Nabataeans in 106 CE.
In addition to Hegra, AlUla is home to a series of fascinating historical and archaeological sites such as: an Old Town surrounded by an ancient oasis; Dadan, the capital of the Dadan and Lihyan Kingdoms, which is considered one of the most developed 1st-millennium BCE cities of the Arabian Peninsula; thousands of ancient rock art sites and inscriptions in Jabal Ikmah; and Hijaz Railway stations.