During the winters of 2012 and 2013 I spent a total of 10 weeks exploring a vast wadi system in the Dhofar Province of Oman; known as Wadi Sayq. The expeditions constituted the first two instalments of a series of scientific expeditions to Oman run by the British Exploring Society. Click here to find out more about the 2015 expedition. I was joined by different Omani and British team members each year but our mission remained unchanged; to capture camera trap footage of the highly elusive and critically endangered Arabian Leopard Panthera pardus nimr.
Let me take you on a journey through the spiny monsoon cloud forests and dusty rocky canyons beneath the Arabian sun.
Gliding in an overpowered local fishing boat above the tropical blue ocean, I couldn’t help but feel the odds were stacked against us. With an estimated population of only 50 individuals in an area spanning 99,000 square kilometres; what were the chances of us finding this elusive big cat in a single dry river valley.
Rounding the headland to the north of the valley mouth I cast my eyes upon an epic spectacle. A vast gravel plain abruptly soaring skywards on each side into cavernous cliffs cloaked in dense vegetation; the valley narrowing before disappearing into an even steeper ‘V’ shaped valley, the floor of which, was littered with boulders the size of houses. A stark contrast to the barren desert we had returned from and a landscape that could easily have come from the set of Jurassic Park. From that moment a small glimmer of hope lit up in everyone; our mission had begun.
With base camp and our hopes established we set out exploring the wadi system. We could cover a lot of ground by following the narrow trails carved through the spiny woodland by the herd of cattle that grazed the wadi. It wasn’t long before we started noticing prints and scats (animal poo) in the dusty soil but we couldn’t be sure who they belonged to; it’s not just leopard that is found here but also Arabian Wolf, Striped Hyena and Caracal. Over time though we began to document the signs and identify the owners of the prints. In fact, it turned out we had already found signs of the Arabian Leopard in just a few days.
Over the following couple of weeks we deployed 19 camera traps throughout the wadi; on trails, in caves, near the beach and hundreds of metres up the valley sides. We had high hopes for the camera which was baited with a decomposing parrot fish’s head about 3 km up the valley.
All we could do now was cross our fingers and hope the leopard walked passed one of our cameras. Over the following weeks, we got stuck in to documenting the other wildlife in this unique landscape. The bird communities here are the richest you will find in the whole Arabian Peninsula; fan-tailed ravens and numerous birds of prey soar on the thermals ascending silently from the steep valley, while tiny sunbirds sip nectar from the woodland canopy. We discovered reptiles ranging in size and shape from the 4cm semaphore rock gecko; a diurnal species, so called due to the tail curling and head bobbing behaviour of the territorial males, to the mighty Arabian Cobra that rudely forced us to abandon one of our bird surveys.
Half way through the expedition we were joined by a team of botanists from Muscat; days were spent collecting seeds and specimens for their collections. On one of the walks we couldn’t help checking our camera trap baited with the fish head. To our surprise there was nothing; only a hyrax which hadn’t noticed the fish head staring from empty eye sockets. The following day we flicked through the clips on the tiny screen of one of the other cameras further up the wadi. Suddenly James Borrell, my fellow science leader exploded into a hysterical laughter next to me. And there it was; a leopard’s tail. It was a fantastic feeling, the Arabian Leopard was here.
There was a fresh buzz among the team over the following few days. Every morning there was claims to have heard movement nearby in the night. And it was believable – everyone was hearing things. Whether it was leopard, cow or mongoose; nobody knew.
One day, while exploring the plateau on the southern valley shoulders, we met a local herdsman. He invited us back to his home and we ate outside under the shade of his porch. His English was poor and our Arabic more so, but we managed to explain our reasons for our laborious trekking around the wadi. Later he walked with us back to our camp. He carried a rifle over his shoulder and when I asked why, he explained it was to protect himself from the leopard. He explained leopards had killed his livestock and he would shoot the leopard if he saw one. In truth, I don’t think he would have done, there are hefty fines and potential imprisonment if you are found to have killed a leopard, but his feelings towards the leopard were clear. It is difficult to know whether livestock attacks are actually from leopard, rather than hyena or wolf and in many cases leopards are blamed for even unexplained deaths of livestock. This unfortunate misunderstanding is uniform across the Dhofar Mountains and ultimately, if the livestock herds had not outcompete the native prey species such as Gazelle and Ibex then livestock attacks would be much rarer.
We were nearing the end of the expedition and with this came the promise of the most exciting element of camera trap surveys – checking the camera footage. Perched around the expedition laptop at dusk, James and I flicked through the thumbnails with baited breath anticipating the telltale glow of a mammal under infrared light. And we didn’t have to wait long; indeed almost every camera had picked up at least one species of large mammal and there were several half-decent shots of the leopard amongst these.
Our luck then continued. On the second to last night a small group of us were bedding down at a confluence of two valleys, after a relaxing evening of singing to some songs on my mobile phone around the campfire. Then at almost the exact moment my head hit the pillow, a throaty grunt bellowed from the northern valley side just a few hundred metres away. Moments later we had gathered in a circle, head torch beams blinding each other’s faces, to reflect on what we had just heard. Before we could even begin to speak however, it came again, the exact same sound; almost like the sound of an old man clearing his throat after years of smoking. There was little doubt we were hearing the call of the Arabian Leopard. Those of us who had set our beds down away from the main group gathered our belongings and moved a bit closer, while others grabbed the night-vision binoculars, hand torches and cameras. We climbed atop of a large boulder and sat there, peering into the blackness until 3am, when finally the leopard stopped calling.
In the light of the next morning we walked the trails where we thought the sound had come from, and sure enough the dusty ground was coated in paw prints. And to top it off we had caught footage of the leopard on the camera traps we were there to retrieve.
Detailed analysis of the footage on our return to the UK revealed we had photographed two adult leopards; a male and a female.
Spurred on by the success of the 2012 expedition we returned to Wadi Sayq the following year to continue our mission; but nothing we had witnessed so far could have prepared us for what we were going to discover…
Part 2 Coming Soon…