I give you an edited version of my last article that was published on Al Ghanjah, the Oman LNG corporate magazine (Dec 2012 – Jan 2013 edition)
Searching for the Arabian Leopard
An adventure in Dhofar, a land filled with more wildlife than meets the eye
I’m always excited at the prospect of travelling and exploring new places but when to that excitement you also add the feel-good factor of knowing that your trip has a purpose and that your being there contributes to knowledge & science (and to the better good in general) the intensity of that excitement spikes to a level that is hard to describe.
This time I don’t have to venture too far: 1.5 hrs after boarding my plane in Muscat, I am gliding with my fellow passengers above a grovel of Wadis (dry river beds) that seen from the air looks like a section of the human brain to me. Those scars are a clear indication that, although apparently dry, this landscape is chiselled regularly by the unstoppable works of the elements: wind, rock-cracking heat and unforgiving sun but also water which every summer comes transported by the Khareef, a seasonal weather system that dramatically transforms this coastline over the summer months. I am about to land in Salalah, the capital of Dhofar.
This is my first visit to the region and though I have heard about the amazing spectacle that unfolds during the monsoon months of Khareef, the reason for this visit is not to marvel at the seasonal landscape transformations (though I will return to Salalah on a different trip for that) but to search for traces of a very elusive creature. It is the middle of February and though the land from the air looks like a totally inhospitable environment, I am here for the very purpose of searching and researching a beautiful and threatened endemic form of life: I am about to join a research expedition looking for traces of the Arabian Leopard.
The first thing that people normally ask me when I talk about this experience is whether I actually got to see the Leopard. Let me set the record straight immediately. If you are expecting tales of stand offs to the last stare between me and the big cat or people being dragged by their feet from their tents during the night, then you are going to be disappointed.
I have been in the African bush and “stalked” leopards for days before I eventually got a glimpse of this incredibly mysterious animal. If it is hard there, where it roams freely in a protected environment then try to imagine the chances in a territory shared with humans. I am talking of the Arabian Leopard an amazingly beautiful creature that has been on the critically endangered list by the IUCN since 1996. Affected dramatically by humans through hunting and competition for habitat, this endemic cat has almost entirely disappeared from the Arabian Peninsula with only a limited number of exemplars remaining in the wild and mostly confined to the mountains of southern Oman and Yemen.
So while I can tell you immediately that I did not get to see the animal in flesh and bone I felt extremely privileged to be able to take part in this research expedition. On this trip I learned a great deal, not only about the animal itself but also about its habitat and the other animals it shares its territory with; I listened to fascinating stories from local elders, parted new knowledge with school children, “played” with the tools of the trade, trekked across some amazing landscapes, witnessed the amazing array of wildlife that Dhofar has on display and fell in love with Oman all over again, for its ability even after several years, to surprise and amaze me with its lunar landscapes, climate-defying nature and its amazingly well kept secrets.
Paul, the expedition leader meets me at the airport to take me to the expedition base. The thought of camping for a week pushes me immediately beyond my comfort zone but I always like a challenge.
On leaving the airport, Salalah welcomes me in all its glory. Tamarind trees full of yellow weaver birds busy building their curiously shaped nests, coconut tree plantations and a rather tropical feel. Quite a change from Muscat.
As we leave the city behind, the landscape changes a few times. As the road climbs, the view opens up to a glorious panorama over the valley and the coastline. Dry bushes covering entire flanks of the mountains keep reminding us that this land is not always so dry. We are slowed down by the biggest herds of camels that I have ever seen and cows that appear on the road out of nowhere. Eventually we find ourselves again in a dry area of bare land too far and sheltered for the monsoon rains to reach.
Our camp is at the bottom of Wadi Uyoun. As we descend a steep track and make the car roll over smooth boulders I catch a glimpse of my first gazelle. Unless they move their savannah-coloured coat camouflages perfectly with the surrounding landscape. You need a trained eye to spot them when they freeze sensing danger, but come close enough or make a noise and they will launch into a frantic run before they disappear again behind a bush.
At the camp I meet the rest of the team. Marcelo is our expedition scientist. An experienced biologist from Brazil who has devoted his life to studying wild cats; Khaled, the local field guide from the Office for Conservation of the Environment hypnotises us with his tales of solitary long trips into the desert and his quests for the Arabian Leopard. Then there are the other volunteers: a group of people from all ages and background that have flown from different parts of the world to learn and contribute to the project for two weeks at the time.
I am joining the group in mid expedition so I need to catch up. Luckily at the end of every day we all gather around the camp fire and everybody gives a summary of their experiences before new teams and jobs are assigned for the following day. It is a great opportunity to get to know everybody but also to learn more about the project.
We are exploring a wide area which has been divided into squares on a map (our transects).
Every day the group is split into small teams heading into different directions to survey a specific designated area assigned by the scientist. We are searching for traces of the Arabian Leopard in a geographic location sandwiched between Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve in Dhofar, a protected area known to host a few remaining leopards and Yemen. This means driving to an assigned spot and walking extensively along tracks looking for signs, placing camera traps in strategic locations, photographing, recording coordinates of and measuring paw prints and even observing and collecting animal droppings that could potentially be leopard scat. Who would have thought that cat poo could be so exciting!
Part of the work also includes community engagement so in turns volunteers get an opportunity to visit local schools, distribute educational material and interview herders and other locals about their sightings. Some of the stories collected are fascinating; after travelling from mouth to mouth they have become like Chinese whispers that compete with fantasy books but while one may be tempted to quickly dismiss them, they are still an important piece of the big puzzle.
Stories of sightings, even far back in time, can point us towards specific areas to survey and give us insights into the delicate balance between man and wilderness.
While all the work is informative and interesting my favourite moment of the expedition is collecting the camera traps. After a few days of recording in the wilderness this piece of equipment enables us to cast a spying eye into the life that quietly unfolds around us.
Sometimes a cheeky bird keeps on dancing in front of the camera and we end up with a memory card full of bird poses, other times the camera does not work at all but when it does, discovering the images is as exciting as finding a hidden treasure.
The photos captured by the camera traps that we set up during the expedition are the proof that this habitat hosts more wildlife that meets the eye: foxes, gazelles, honey badgers, hyenas, hyrax, porcupines, wolf and caracal. Some are typical leopard prey others compete for territory. This is all important information to understand whether the habitat could support the survival of the leopard.
At the end of the expedition the scientist will analyse all the samples and information collected and publish a report. There is a lot of research work put into following up an expedition like this and the DNA tests for the scat collected require months.
Eventually this adventure too has to come to an end. We dismantle the camp and part. Each one of us with wonderful memories and the knowledge of having contributed to something great.
As for me I was amazed to learn about and see the amazing array of wildlife that Dhofar hosts; it was an amazing experience to be part of.
If you ever have the luck to travel to Oman and visit Dhofar take time to look around; if you are a local be proud of and respect this amazing environment.
It hosts more wildlife than you may think.
The report documenting the results of this expedition which I took part in in 2011 is now published. If you are interested in reading about the findings of this specific expedition please click on the following link:
Unfortunately this specific expedition is no longer running however if you are interested in exploring other opportunities to join a conservation expedition like this one I really recommend you to visit http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org
All camera Trap photos are courtesy of Biosphere Expeditions (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org)