A shrinking population of less than 250 Arabian leopards struggle to survive along the isolated Yemen-Oman border. A small group of conservationists is trying to prove that the leopard’s habitat may extend into small pockets of Western Yemen as well, but with rampant environmental neglect and government corruption, the task is a difficult one. Journalist Gaar Adams joins a week-long expedition through Yemen’s majestic Haraz Mountains and Western Highlands — some of the most remote and unexplored natural environments on the planet — in a quest to find and protect the last of Arabia’s critically endangered big cats.


HAJJAH, HARAZ MOUNTAINS, YEMEN

 

DropCap-WWell after dark, we arrived in Hajjah, choking on diesel fumes. The stench of burning fuel hung heavy in the air. Opening our car doors, we pulled keffiyehs up over our stinging nostrils to ward off the fetid haze. Deafening growls belched out of generators that lined the streets, rumbling across the thick concrete sprawl of the hilltop town. That morning, we had moved north away from gridlocked Sana’a and away from a power cut. Ninety-three miles to the west — and nine hours later — we were greeted by the same wounded, low groan of old generator engines that were puffing filth into the sky.

We had arrived later than anticipated. Nestled 5,906 feet (1,800 meters) high, amid some of the tallest peaks of the Haraz Mountains, Hajjah’s strategic location as a fortified stronghold of the former Imamate made sense: reaching the town was a precarious journey by any standards. Traversing the modern asphalt road that dangled over the craggy range proved perilous — with no shoulders or guardrails, each tight switchback was a reminder that just one careless turn could result in careening off into the abyss. Between the relentless white-knuckled driving, a blown tire and having to take a backroad bypass to avoid the security situation in Amran, it had been a long day.

I’m shadowing a team of environmental researchers from Yemen’sFoundation for Endangered Wildlife (FEW) on a seven-day-long, 621-mile fieldwork expedition where they hope to gather evidence of the Arabian leopard’s presence — one of the rarest animals on the planet — among the daunting ranges and secluded valleys of the Haraz Mountains and Western Highlands of Yemen.

The Western Highlands of Yemen
The Western Highlands of Yemen

Four years earlier, similar fieldwork in Hawf — a distant eastern region along the Omani border — yielded spectacular results: FEW researchers recorded the first photographic evidence in history of the critically endangered animal in Yemen. It was a monumental achievement for the preservation of the Arabian leopard – a majestic big cat that once roamed the entire Arabian Peninsula, Egyptian Sinai and parts of the Levant as recently as a half century ago. Before FEW’s work in Hawf, scientists thought that a sustained population only remained in a small southerncorner of Oman. And though fewer than 250 leopards survive today, FEW’s work had provided researchers with a little more hope for the animal’s survival by proving that its habitat still extended into Yemen — albeit just barely.

A camera trap captures the first photographic evidence of the Arabian Leopard in Yemen.
A camera trap captures the first photographic evidence of the Arabian Leopard in Yemen

Three years later, FEW’s ragtag team of scientists, post-graduate researchers and volunteers were still doing some of the only real substantive ecological research on the ground in Yemen. But faced with a slew of escalating challenges — bureaucratic and literal roadblocks in traveling to Hawf, shrinking funding and a planned security fence along the Omani border that would decimate the last proven habitat of the Arabian leopard — FEW made a brazen decision: they pulled out of the area to concentrate resources on proving that other pockets of leopards might still exist in Yemen.

After verifying that Arabian leopards still roamed the Hawf region, it seemed crazy to drop the needle back into the haystack and try to find it again. But FEW realized that their concerted push might be the last chance to save any remaining isolated populations elsewhere in Yemen before these pockets of leopards became too scant or separated to mate. Unsubstantiated reports of their continued existence among the craggy mountains of western Yemen certainly endured in oral tradition, and each researcher had heard the vivid stories — like the tales of a grizzled farmer who had chased off a leopard that was attacking his animals, or rumors of a woman having glimpsed one on her way to a communal well.

But with no guarantees, it would take a full-court press by FEW to find any Arabian leopards in other regions of Yemen. The team would need to run through a laundry list of tasks in each potential area: listening to folklore to unearth any potential recent encounters with the animal, studying if any of these former habitats still had the flora or fauna to actually support a population, analyzing human disruption to these potential ecosystems and setting up motion-sensor camera traps — not to mention intensely lobbying local tribal leadership to even allow access to the land in the first place. The foundation would have to follow their nose by pursuing every possible lead and the endeavor would be equal parts of diplomacy, art and science.

The week-long fieldwork expedition came at a critical time for both the foundation and for Yemen’s delicate ecosystems. FEW was in the midst of transitioning from its former name — the Foundation for the Protection of Arabian Leopards In Yemen (FPALY) — to the more all-encompassing Foundation for Endangered Wildlife. And while focusing exclusively on championing Yemen’s flagship species might have been sexier, the foundation knew that preserving an animal’s entire ecosystem was essential for its survival. In Yemen, environmental calamities abound: rapidly depleting aquifers, unrestricted pastoral grazing, unregulated urban sprawl. Today, Yemen’s once lush ecosystems now falter under a series of burdens threatening to bring down not just the Arabian leopard but the entire country, as well.

Switchbacks in the mountains outside Hajjah, Yemen.
Switchbacks in the mountains outside Hajjah, Yemen

In a dank restaurant in town over a dinner of greasy chicken livers, we met up with Mohammed Al-Qudami, FEW’s field researcher embedded in Wadi Sharis. Pushing his slight frame forward over the low rickety table to talk over the din of the generators, Al-Qudami distractedly reviewed the plans for our morning expedition into Sharis. “The wood from this table was probably taken from the mountains,” he lamented, rubbing his hands across its uneven surface, adjusting awkwardly in his plastic chair.

Navigating the bustle of a 40,000-person city like Hajjah was clearly outside of Al-Qudami’s comfort zone. Despite having grown up in Wadi Sharis, he rarely ascended the mountains into town. An environmental science graduate of Sana’a University, Al-Qudami instead preferred the quiet of his childhood village. He was lucky. To find employment in a scientific field outside of the swollen government bureaucracy was a feat. But FEW was just as lucky to have Al-Qudami — an astute researcher with the kind of know-how to deal with the convoluted challenges of accessing land, building relationships with stakeholders and navigating local politics and customs.

We left Hajjah while its shuttered concrete shops were still shrouded in pre-dawn mist. The wipers on the car wouldn’t budge, so Al-Qudami leaned out the passenger window with a keffiyeh, clearing a layer of condensation from our cracked windshield while we slowly rolled down the face of the mountain. As he worked methodically on the windshield, he spoke hopefully of Wadi Sharis’s potential role in proving leopards still roam the basins of the Haraz mountains.

Though the increasing populace in the roughly fifty villages scattering the Sharis valley floor might initially seem to diminish the likelihood of leopards subsisting in the area — official estimates place the population at just under 15,000 residents — Sharis also features a series of side-valleys with steep terrain that is largely inaccessible to the farmers and shepherds that utilize much of its main basin.

So, despite their relative closeness to human settlements, these smaller valleys remain inhospitable enough to the people of Sharis that they could conceivably house leopards. FEW has already uncovered ample evidence that the flora in Sharis could support both potential Arabian leopard prey as well as other medium-sized fauna such as rock hyrax, honey badgers and even caracal. “Leopards could roam here. Even if just a transient population,” Al-Qudami said, ducking back into the car.

Indeed, Arabian leopards once called this entire region home. Near Amran, less than twenty-five miles east, the animal was once prolific. But dual catastrophes in the early 1990s — a glut of unemployed Yemeni men had returned home after mass expulsion from Saudi Arabia coupled with the news that a wealthy Emirati conservation group had paid for the release of a leopard caught by trappers in Western Yemen — led to a surge of regional poaching. The Arabian leopard, already extinct in approximately 90% of its former range, was being rooted out of its few remaining habitats, as well.

Pitching back and forth in our seats, jumbled by the rocky terrain, Al-Qudami pointed up the mountain to an area that featured a traditional leopard trap comprised of stones. “That’s how farmers used to trap leopards,” he said. But now, he sighed, “the Arabian leopard is caught in a lucrative world of money, pelts and guns.”

But for Al-Qudami, other challenges and frustrations abound. Even after obtaining permission to lay half a dozen camera traps (motion-detecting cameras that snap images of passing wildlife), FEW still faced some local push-back about their true purpose and capabilities, fielding questions about whether the camera traps could be used for spying or whether they could take into account cultural sensitivities like not photographing women. As we trekked into the valley on foot, Al-Qudami showed me the former location of a camera trap, one of two that had been stolen over a six-month period.

“Now I am more careful to place them where I know they can’t be found,” he grinned. And these new tactics have had some great successes. In February, one of Al-Qudami’s camera traps captured a photo of a Blanford’s fox. FEW researchers had first documented the species in Yemen in 2011. Al-Qudami’s groundbreaking photo three years later extended the animal’s habitat by an astonishing 621 miles.

Blanford's Fox captured by a camera trap.
A Blanford’s fox captured by a camera trap

As we climbed farther into the valley keeping an eye out for any caves (potential havens for leopards and depositories for scat, and other evidence of the big cat and its prey) Al-Qudami spoke excitedly about a new initiative that involved laying pheromones around camera traps to potentially help attract leopards. Based on studies that found promise in using pheromones to attract others species of leopards, the enterprise hasn’t yet yielded results in Yemen, but Al-Qudami has collected plenty of photos of prey in Sharis that indicate the possibility of a leopard habitat. Like a human encyclopedia, Al-Qudami ran through the list of species he’s photographed and then stopped dead in his tracks along a steep embankment. Three feet ahead, animal dung lay clumped near an outcropping of rocks. Carefully placing his pen down to measure it, he concluded that it probably belonged to a hyena.

Another 328 feet into the valley, Al-Qudami found more good news: footprints definitively belonging to a striped hyena (a species native to Yemen but threatened by frequent poisonings by farmers). Holding everyone back while crouching down in the dirt, Al-Qudami examined the scene with the meticulousness of a homicide detective. Silent for a moment, his eyes scanning the sandy clearing, a big smile soon crossed his face. “There were two, maybe three hyenas here. And they were playing,” he beamed, flipping his hands back and forth to demonstrate their rolling and frolicking that was evident in the depressions and patches in the sand before him.

Mohammed Al-Qudami examining the footprints of a striped hyena.
Mohammed Al-Qudami examining the footprints of a striped hyena

But as we climbed higher, Al-Qudami’s smile faded. Pointing all along the ridge, he showed its systematic stripping and deforestation, a deepening crisis in Sharis fueled by the skyrocketing cost of fuel in Yemen. Taking a break high up on a cliff overlooking much of the valley, Al-Qudami nodded in the distance to a group of houses that were newly built since the last time he had made this trek to check the camera traps. As clouds streamed past, Al-Qudami admitted his dream that FEW might gain the resources to employ more people as field researchers, demonstrating to the people in his home valley that a non-traditional job in conservation could lead to great things for Sharis. “Yemen needs more jobs,” he sighed, slowly trekking back down the valley toward the car. “People are forgotten out here and need help saving the leopard and their villages.”


JEBEL MILHAN, AL MAHWIT, YEMEN

 

DropCap-TThough we had left the Haraz mountain range earlier in the day only to re-enter through another access point, Jebel Milhan — one of the western-most peaks in the commanding Haraz mountain range — felt markedly different than the rocky region surrounding Hajjah. Here, moist coastal air from Tihama in the west collides with the Haraz highlands’ chillier mountainous climate in the east, bucketing rain down onto the Jebel Milhan escarpment and resulting in an ecology that is almost tropical. As we coasted into the shadow of the mountain, a lush canopy of vibrant greens spilled out before us. FEW is hopeful that this secluded area might still prove to be an ideal leopard habitat. Though it’s an unproven hypothesis, it’s one that — after parsing through the mountain’s rich foliage and even richer oral history — holds tantalizing promise.

Tihama, a strip of dry, flat land that fans out from Yemen’s Red Sea coast.
Tihama, a strip of dry, flat land that fans out from Yemen’s Red Sea coast

Abdo Al-Shathami, a mustachioed man in his mid-40s with deep-set eyes and a gracefully receding hairline, joined us in the car. A supporter of FEW who has worked with Yemen’s Environment Protection Authority, the Foundation considers Al-Shathami an important ally with feet planted in both the government and in the secluded region of Jebel Milhan. Al-Shathami introduced his associate, Adel Al-Milhani, a true local boy. Ducking his head slightly, Al-Milhani’s shy greeting and meek handshake spoke of a life spent growing up in this remote region, but his responsibilities with the Foundation belayed his age and disposition. At just 26 years old, Al-Milhani has almost single-handedly ran FEW’s Jebel Milhan survey since its re-launch in mid-2013.

While nomenclature denotes it part of the Haraz Mountains, Milhan is its own massif. Surrounded by numerous valleys, the ecology of Milhan is both more removed and more unique than the surrounding region, featuring endemic species — and potential leopard prey — like the Yemen monitor lizard.

The Foundation’s work in Milhan five years ago had begun with a series of rapid-fire successes. In 2009, its initial assessment of the region was deemed promising enough to warrant developing a partnership with a local resident who had been contracted to deploy a camera trap — which at the time was one of the first examples of that technology being utilized in the country’s history. Though no proof of the leopard was captured, the images taken with the groundbreaking equipment depicted such a range of biodiversity that FEW was able to successfully lobby the government to declare Milhan as one of the country’s few Protected Areas in November 2010, less than a year after the survey had begun. As photographs of diverse wildlife continued to stream in, FEW then secured two grants from Panthera and the Rufford Foundation in 2011 — enough money to continue its work in Milhan for at least another year-long survey.

A small cluster of homes on the edge of remote Jebel Milhan.
A small cluster of homes on the edge of remote Jebel Milhan

Luckily, 2011 started off as a banner year for the Foundation. In addition to capturing the first photographic proof of the Arabian leopard in Yemen in Hawf, the foundation had enough funds from its two new grants to start a full-court press in Milhan with nine camera traps that covered enough territory that the foundation was hopeful it could prove the leopard’s habitat still extended an astonishing 932 miles farther westward than previously documented.

But things soon began to fall apart. Within months of having laid camera traps in Milhan, one-third of FEW’s equipment had been either vandalized or stolen. Shortly thereafter, at the height of lawlessness during the 2011 Revolution, the Foundation’s car was stolen, making an already difficult process of monitoring Milhan almost impossible. Worse yet, it became clear that Milhan’s designation as a “Protected Area” was nothing more than a fancy title: two years after the declaration, the government failed to produce a management or enforcement plan for the region. And so, in 2012, at the height of Revolutionary upheaval, the Foundation was forced to put its Milhan survey on hold indefinitely. But as the Foundation’s mobility challenges improved in the wake of the country’s shifting political landscape, FEW was able to hire Al-Milhani to re-start the survey in mid-2013. With probably only a handful of Arabian leopards scattered around Western Yemen, losing any time at all was calamitous.

Al-Milhani’s role as the bridge between Milhan and FEW is indeed a necessary one. Like Al-Qudami’s role in Wadi Sharis, Al-Milhani’s home roots in the region helped to ease the appearance of the outside group of researchers who were coming in to tell locals how they should live their lives. In Milhan — a place where complaints of simultaneous neglect and imposition on the part of the central government, development funds and foreign intervention are all too common — Al-Milhani’s standing with the local population has proven (and continues to prove) critical.

In addition to building relationships with his local community, Al-Milhani is hoping to document more examples of rare or endemic plant life, likeHydnora africana, an extremely unusual plant FEW found in Milhan and identified as only the third example of the species located in North Yemen. “But most important, I want to take a picture of the leopard,” Al-Milhani admitted.

Al-Shathami (center) and a group of Jebel Milhan residents offroading towards the Milhan camera traps.
Al-Shathami (center) and a group of Jebel Milhan residents off-roading toward the Milhan camera traps

We drove back down the bumpy trail in silence as dark clouds crept into the corners of the sky like ink stains seeping through paper. One man pulled out a large bundle of qat and started chewing, throwing his leaves out the back of the truck as it stumbled down the mountain.

“Do you all think the leopard still lives in Milhan?” Al-Milhani asked softly, more to himself than to the rest of the group that was wedged into the back of the pickup. Betraying the pervasive silence, all the men were quick to shout some emphatic iteration of “Yes!” over one another.

Insha’Allah — God willing,” Al-Milhani replied after a reflective moment.

A caracal in Yemen taken by a camera trap deployed by Adel Al-Milhani
Photo of a caracal in Yemen taken by a camera trap deployed by Adel Al-Milhani

The reality, of course, could much grimer than everyone’s hopes or expectations: perhaps there are no Arabian leopards left here. Perhaps even the most mysterious depths of Milhan fail to harbor the elusive animal. But the reality most likely lies somewhere in between — with a scant few transient leopards probably stalking quietly through Milhan, keeping as far removed from human development as possible. Al-Milhani knows that their continued survival is dependent on these rarer and rarer pockets of untouched land.

“The harder it is for people in Milhan, maybe the easier it is for leopards,” Al-Milhani said, pointing to a group of abandoned terraces higher up the hill, the victims of an ever-lowering water table that plagues most of Yemen. “People now have to spend their whole days getting water if they want to live here,” he continued, gesturing to a group of children and donkeys taking refuge under a rock outcropping on the long journey to the nearest well.

This tension between the hardships facing his fellow citizens and the plight of the leopard was perhaps hardest for Al-Milhani to reconcile as we stopped to pick up a hitch-hiking mango farmer on the way back down the mountain. “Are you hunting leopards?” Al-Shathami asked him teasingly, nodding to the dusty rifle he clutched in his hand.

“I can’t hunt anything. There is no money for bullets,” he said, lowering his head.

We drove down the rest of the mountain in silence, save for the shrill, persistent cry of a few baboons nearby. I watched Al-Milhani stare deeply at the hills whizzing past our truck, maybe hoping a leopard might jump out and surprise us. But the baboons kept screaming, unchecked, perhaps the new kings of Milhan’s depths.


JEBEL BURA, HODEIDAH, YEMEN

 

DropCap-IIt 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 roar. I hastily rolled up my window as the bullish figure squatted down in front of us, his piercing cry still ringing through my ears. Sitting in stalemate along a wide bank of eroding asphalt, I nervously eyed a prominent crack that ran the length of our windshield, imagining seventy pounds of unbridled aggression smashing through the glass. That can’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 that were darting past our car.

As we 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 thirty-three feet ahead, throwing packets of potato chips onto the tarmac for a congress of baboons. Over a dozen Hamadryas had assembled — with several more still scurrying in from various 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 photograph and adjust her niqab before kicking the monkey away from the boy.

A congress of baboons blocking traffic in Jebel Bura.
A congress of baboons blocking traffic in Jebel Bura

That was Jebel Bura — an isolated granite summit thirty-seven miles southeast of Jebel Milhan and the closest thing Yemen has to a bona fide national park. The importance of the woodland there 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 is also the largest forest in all of Yemen. But the fact that a relatively modest 4,500-hectare region holds this distinction speaks volumes as to the scarcity of this ecology: indeed, Hawf, Bura and Milhan are three of the very last viable forests left in the Arabian Peninsula.

Though the Yemeni government declares the area protected, the constant and complex barrage of threats facing Bura including deforestation, illegal grazing and murky land ownership policies — as well as the distinct perils of even holding the title of “reserve” — tell a different story altogether. Skirting a pool of oil that was steadily dripping from one of the convoy’s trucks — and driving carefully to mind the children who were snatching bags of chips away from baboons — “Yemen’s National Park” looked particularly grim. “Bura is supposed to be one of our country’s most protected places,” lamented Abdo Al-Jamali, the FEW volunteer who was driving as he shook his head in disappointment as two bright-pink plastic bags blew past the windshield. “It’s a shame.”

A defaced ‘No Littering’ sign near the entrance of the Jebel Bura reserve.
A defaced ‘No Littering’ sign near the entrance of the Jebel Bura reserve

For FEW, the reality facing Bura poses a distinct challenge: how does one delicately illustrate that one of Yemen’s most highly-touted natural habitats is, in fact, a cautionary tale; a portrait of how not to direct the future of Yemeni conservation? And in a country where depleting water tables, exhausted aquifers and increasing desertification make Bura look like Eden, how do you show that this seemingly perfect oasis of tranquility is, at the same time, dying?

Of the eight families who live within the bounds of Bura’s Protected Area, the consensus is that the last calls of the leopard fell silent when the bulldozers ripped across the valley floor a decade ago.

In 2004, despite an official inclusion on UNESCO’s Tentative List two years earlier, construction equipment rolled into Bura to begin work on an extensive tarred road that would cut through the heart of Wadi Rijaf — the most lush and important section of Bura — at the southern base of the 7,217-foot-tall (2,200-meter-tall) mountain. Previously, access had been difficult as the area was only reachable via a rough track that had been constructed in the mid-1980s.

The new asphalt road changed everything. Spanning three miles, the road runs along many of the valley floor’s fragile natural springs and was widened to an absurd ninety-eight feet in some places. Almost 20% of the forest — some of Bura’s densest — was destroyed. Then, like an afterthought, the Yemeni Cabinet declared Bura a “protected area” in January 2006, after construction on the road was nearly complete.

“All the leopards are quiet now,” one elderly man told me, clutching a basin for water as we walked toward one of Bura’s increasingly rare springs. It’s a sad belief shared by most. In a twenty-two-page Edinburgh Journal of Botany article from 2008 — one of only a handful of studies undertaken in Bura — the status of the Arabian leopard warranted just five words: “believed to be locally extinct.”

But while most assumed that the leopard had met the same fate in Bura as it had in so many other parts of its former habitat, the Foundation wasn’t quite ready to give up hope, choosing instead to believe in the veracity of some locally-reported leopard sightings as late as 2009.

The protected Jebel Bura reserve.
The protected Jebel Bura reserve

In 2010, two years after the Edinburgh report, the government granted FEW permission to enter Bura with four camera traps, pioneering the technology in the region. Though no leopards were definitively photographed, results were promising enough to re-enter under a grant from the renowned Prince Bernhard Nature Fund. And so, in 2013, FEW came back to Bura with double the camera traps with which they documented the presence of robust leopard prey and other promising examples of mammals that still called Bura home. But while operating from a protected area might have seemed like a prime opportunity for the Foundation, the politics and challenges facing Yemen’s most visible and contested mainland reserve proved crippling at times.

With the Yemeni government ending its subsidy program and with fuel prices skyrocketing, chopping down trees within the protected area remains the only viable fuel option for a startling many in the Bura region. Even despite a program to offer free canisters to the local community in the hopes of encouraging gas as a source of energy, tree destruction has continued unabated. And with the asphalt road cutting a neat path through the forest, access to even more trees that were once inaccessible is now possible.

“We stop people entering with cattle (for grazing) and stop people from leaving with wood,” said the only security guard stationed at the bare bones entrance of the Bura reserve. But later, after a short qat chew, he sheepishly admitted that enforcement was difficult. “I don’t get paid enough to be the police for people from my village,” he laughed, throwing a stem of qat out into the dirt.

And contention exists over the enforcement of these “no grazing, no logging” rules, with one EPA official alleging that the Bura reserve guards often apply different levels of implementation for the impoverished “lowland” residents who try to enter Bura versus the comparatively wealthier “highland” qat and coffee farmers.

On top of felling trees and illegal grazing, everyone seems to agree that short-term tourist visitors are one of the other significant culprits of a damaged Bura. Between 2005 and 2007 when the reserve was officially established, visitors to Bura quadrupled. Most visitors come for day trips of nature-watching and picnicking, but awareness of how to interact with the fragile ecosystem is sorely lacking. “People treat Bura like a zoo,” cried Dr. Al-Duais, the Executive Director of FEW. “Monkeys, monkeys, monkeys. They only talk about monkeys,” Al-Jamali added. The fact that the Hamadryas Baboon is the most-touted animal by Bura park staff is a serious concern. While it’s by far the most likely mammal to be spotted on the reserve, its presence does not necessarily indicate a healthy ecosystem — the animal is on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s list of “least concern,” and they are a threat to other forms of life in Bura.

“It is a scary situation for Bura,” Al-Jamali admitted as we jumped back into the car, leaving a tangle of plastic bags to rustle in the wind. “If we are not careful, Sharis or Milhan will [end up] the same. It will be the same everywhere in Yemen,” he added, clucking his tongue in disapproval.

As we started our slow 124-mile drive southeast, the road became dustier. We passed the town of Zabid — the former capital of Yemen and a world-renowned 13th-century center for Islamic scholarship. Today, Zabid is swallowed by sand, concrete and time. I thought about Bura as dust caked onto the windshield and we took turns manually cleaning the wipers. We kept driving along what seemed to be the very edge of the world. To Ibb. To Yemen’s Green City. To our last chance to glimpse the Arabian leopard.


IBB, YEMEN

 

DropCap-W2We 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 grey outlines of men fixing bundles along the edge of the steep switchbacks in the road. After a nearly a 621-mile journey, we were nearing our final stop: a wet, fertile region of Yemen cradled by the immense Southern Mountains, 6,562 feet (2,000 meters) up.

As Yemen struggles with a plummeting water table and the population of the Ibb swells past 2.5 million, the so-called “Green City” is becoming less “green” and more “city”. For the Arabian leopard, this means that time is running out. Despite its omnipresence in the oral history of elderly hillside farmers, the animal hasn’t been definitively spotted in Ibb in a decade.

The sprawling city of Ibb, Yemen.
The sprawling city of Ibb, Yemen

A blanket of sunlight enveloped our car as we crested a towering hill and the full city of Ibb fanned out below us. After nearly a week on the road in some of the most remote locales in Western Yemen, it felt strange to suddenly gaze out upon one of the most populous areas in the country. As I watched the rows of cement buildings whiz past us, I wouldn’t have believed that this would be the region where, in a few short hours, I would finally glimpse the elusive Arabian leopard. But first we had to make a quick stop for chicken livers at what felt like the edge of the world.

We parked our car in a dusty lot that dangled atop the crest of an Ibb hillside in Ozlat Al-Duais, Dr. Al-Duais’ ancestral homeland. Even as we walked toward a dilapidated restaurant that was just opening its noisy shutters, Al-Duais alternated between checking on the health of the familiar Euphorbia plants that lined the crumbling asphalt road and waving to each shopkeeper who was setting up for the day. The hometown boy had returned.

“Ibb is where he grew up,” whispered Murad Al-Awadhi, a FEW coordinator and fellow Ibb resident. “The health of its nature is very personal for the doctor.”

While doling out steaming liver to our two-car convoy, Al-Duais spoke candidly about the frustrations of garnering both the legal and grassroots framework for a government-declared protected area in Ibb. “If we get the name [Protected Area] — God willing — the job has just begun,” he said, finally sitting down to eat his own breakfast. He eyed the plates of food and the ten men in front of him like a general preparing for battle.

Even the designation of the title, Protected Area, in Yemen is bewildering. “The environment has never been seen as an important sector by anyone in the government beyond its limited potential as a niche to gobble up development money,” one source working in the environmental sector in Yemen told me, mincing no words.

Today, the Yemeni government has declared six protected areas, but one-third of them lack any type of management proposals. For those that do, on-the-ground execution of the plans is often nonexistent. This is where the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) — the managerial body of the MWE — should be operating. But a MWE report to the Convention on Biological Diversity even blatantly admitted a “lack of effective administration and conservation management regimes for protected areas” as a major issue.

After a sumptuous meal that highlighted Ibb’s plentiful crops and food specialties, the two-dozen lunch-goers splayed out unceremoniously on the mafraj. Stories of elders’ alleged encounters with the Arabian leopard began to unfold as qat was passed around, and I prepared to settle in for a long chew as per tradition. But we were jolted from our post-feast lethargy by our lunch host’s voice booming through the doorway, “I can take you to see an Arabian leopard now.”

We drove six miles down a dusty road in silence. Al-Duais spoke the only words during the entire journey. “Dodonaea viscosa,” he said, identifying a squat, flowering plant that we passed along the side of the rock-lined road.

Our host was leading us to the house of a friend (“A small farm,” he said) just west of Al-Radaei. The grounds of the farm were more like a range or a plantation. Luxurious green space spilled out in front of the home. Rows of planted trees stood neatly in place. Two non-Yemeni breeds of cattle grazed out front, “the price of which would have been a small fortune to import,” Al-Duais whispered as we walked toward an ornate door. “There is some money here,” Al-Duais added matter-of-factly, as our host ushered us inside a vast hall.

We skirted along the edge of an enormous mafraj, standing under vaulted ceilings and ornate, crested windows. Over two-dozen men lined the room, their bodies propped up by stiff pillows and their cheeks stuffed with qat. At first I only noticed the massive piles of discarded qat stems on the floor, but then all at once, it stood in front of me. In the end, after chasing its specter across Yemen, I almost tripped right over one: it was an Arabian leopard.

“It’s been dead for two years,” our lunch host said. Sadly, the leopard looked like it had been dead for much longer and it seemed as though afterward, somewhere along the line, it had been hastily filled with a sack of spilling beanbags. “We were hunting and saw the leopard,” the owner gloated.

Like the qat-chewers along the mafraj, it sat askew, propped unnaturally on its bulging right haunch. Its whole shape was wrong, too, with a body that was swollen in some places and grotesquely hollow in others. Its mighty jaw was hinged open and its right forepaw reached forward, perhaps as a last-ditch appeal for a scrap of dignity.

After driving 621 miles and spending a week on the road, I was face-to-face with an Arabian leopard. Knowing that probably fewer than 100 survive in the country, I sat close to the animal in silent reverence for as long as I could. Nevermind the poor taxidermy; it was a profound opportunity to sit with what — up until that moment — had seemed like little more than a ghost. But I also couldn’t help stealing a few glances across the sweeping landscape just beyond the window. Though we had arrived two years too late for this animal, I wondered exactly how many others might still stalk the craggy highlands, the final bastions of a time when the Arabian leopard stood sentinel over the mountains of Western Yemen.

A version of this story appeared in The Beacon Reader. All photos by Gaar Adams.

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