Saudi Arabian Leopard Initiative: an adventure begins

We are biased and that’s what it is. You’d have to be a robot or very much on the spectrum to eliminate your bias and judgemental ignorance completely, however, that does mean that you should try and acknowledge these biases as an incomplete truth or non-truth. One quote that I have sprinkled throughout my writings is, “don’t believe everything you think” and when it comes to Saudi Arabia, that’s exactly what I needed to keep telling myself when started to get ready for something that would change the trajectory of my career. This came in the form of being asked to join a team that would be researching the presence of the Arabian leopard in the Sarawat Mountains of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Arabian Leopard is potentially the rarest sub-species of wildcats on the planet with just a few that have been observed in Oman and Yemen.

Whats this project about? In a nutshell, the project’s aim is to research whether or not Arabian Leopards still roam the lands of Saudi Arabia. Panthera, who are arguably the leading organisation globally for the conservation of cat species was asked by the Kingdom to begin a 10 year project that would search for and then grow and conserve a leopard population. The first part of the project (basically, what I have been doing since last year October) is place camera traps in strategic points throughout the Sarawat Mountain range and try to identify potential leopard activity and prey.

To say the least, other that my experience working on the Karoo Predator Project and my thirst to be in big mountains, I was amazed to be part of such a project. But, more than anything I was intrigued by the prospect of travelling in Saudi Arabia. Falling back to the question of stereotypes and ignorance, when it came to Saudi I was limited to such things as Camels, Oil and Desert.

A quick Wikipedia search would quickly open my eyes to a rich history, jagged peaks, and coral reefs! This realisation would only be boosted by the fact that I would actually have work for the first time in months, due to you-know-what. I would be traveling and working with the woman of my dreams, Dr Marine Drouilly. She would be traveling in a historic time for women, knowing that women have only just been given the right to drive, but she would none-the-less have a very different experience to me due to being of the opposite sex.

Leaving South Africa was an adventure in itself thanks to the pandemic and the fact that not only was Saudi and South Africa in lockdown but tourism had only just been opened to non-pilgrims in 2019. Luckily we had the backing of the Kingdom, but even with that support it seemed like it was all going to fall through at any moment.

Covid tests, trying to find a flights, more covid tests, quarantine periods and did I mention more covid tests?!

We stopped off in Dubai and then made our way to Jeddah. Being welcomed to temperatures in the mid-40s was something I’d never dealt with but we had arrived and we headed off into the hills.

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