The Christian story of the birth of Jesus features wise men travelling from the east on camels, bearing frankincense and myrrh as gifts. It most definitely does not feature leopards. Yet leopards once roamed much of the Arabian Peninsula and parts of Israel.

Today, the Arabian leopard subspecies is listed as critically endangered, with fewer than 200 remaining in the wild. Image: Hadi Al Hikmani

Today, the small numbers of critically endangered Arabian leopards that remain face a new threat: frankincense collectors encroaching on the tiny remnants of their habitat in Oman. In recent years, as the collectors moved in, the leopards moved on, edging closer to settlements and potential conflicts with camel herders.

Hadi Al Hikmani knows this modern-day story well. He grew up in a family of camel herders in Oman in prime leopard habitat, but became hooked on leopard conservation at a young age despite the risks.

"My family supported the Leopard Project from the early 1990s," Al Hikmani says, referring to Oman's ongoing effort to conserve this iconic subspecies. He later joined the project as an employee and is now studying Arabian leopards as doctoral student at the University of Kent.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has listed the Arabian leopard subspecies as critically endangered, and estimates that fewer than 200 remain in the wild. Al Hikmani's work suggests that 44 to 58 of them roam southern Oman's Dhofar Mountains where he grew up, including in the Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve. That makes it the largest collection of wild Arabian leopards in the world. Other groups are scattered throughout the Arabian Peninsula, persisting in isolated pockets often hundreds of miles from others of their kind. Such tiny groups can easily wink out of existence due to inbreeding or human encroachment.

Source: The Arabian Leopards of Oman by Andrew Spalton and Hadi Al Hikmani, illustrated by Vicky White. 

"The frankincense collectors aren't the major threat," says Al Hikmani, "but they are a new threat." For a subspecies so close to extinction, any threat matters.

Decades of habitat loss from development, urbanisation and overgrazing have eliminated Arabian leopards from most of their historic range. Camels, goats and other livestock denuded the landscape, depleting populations of leopard prey. And when wild prey disappears, leopards turn to livestock.

The collectors gather the fragrant resin of frankincense trees and sell it to tourists and others for incense and perfumes. Al Hikmani worries that as leopards in the reserve move into the foothills to avoid collectors, they'll encounter more camels and other livestock.

But there is some good news. "Before the 1970s, there was a lot of demand for camels for their milk, meat and transport," says Hikmani. "Now, only a small number of people still depend on them." Motor vehicles have replaced camels for transportation, and some people keep the animals simply as pets. Perhaps even more important, Oman's Office for Conservation of the Environment has been compensating herders for losses to leopards since 2014. So rather than kill a leopard in retaliation, herders call a wildlife ranger for payment instead.

An active public education campaign has also helped. Oman's Leopard Project has raised awareness about the importance of leopards to the ecosystem on television and radio programmes, in newspaper stories, and by talking with residents who live in leopard territory. It also employs more than 80 rangers in the Dhofar region, demonstrating the leopard's value more tangibly by providing income. More good news: now that hunting is illegal, camera traps have documented an increase in prey such as Arabian gazelles and Nubian ibex in the area.

Al Hikmani's work suggests that 44 to 58 Arabian leopards roam southern Oman's Dhofar Mountains. Image: Hadi Al Hikmani

But killings in other countries continue. At least three leopards were shot in Yemen in 2015, and two more this year – all in retaliation for killing livestock, according to Al Hikmani.

"We know this through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram," he says. A grim sign, but a sign nonetheless that leopards have persisted. Conservation in Yemen is undoubtedly complicated by an ongoing civil war. In Saudi Arabia, at least one leopard was poisoned in 2014, but there's been no evidence of living leopards in the country for years.

All three countries, as well as neighbouring United Arab Emirates, participate in breeding programmes with about 80 captive leopards. For now, this acts as a safety net against complete extinction of the subspecies and a way to maintain its genetic diversity. But actually reintroducing Arabian leopards into their natural habitat is a longer-term challenge.

"We need to solve the main problems first," says Al Hikmani. That means protecting sufficient habitat and prey to support viable populations. (You can read about the reintroduction of Persian leopards into Russia's Caucasus Mountains here.)

With civil strife raging in Yemen and a growing human population throughout the region, the Arabian leopard might need a modern-day miracle to endure. Or perhaps it just needs a few more wise men.



Top header image: Hadi Al Hikmani