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Saving the Arabian leopard, the world’s smallest leopard

The 3rd Annual New York Wildlife Conservation Film Festival ( runs from January 30 – February 2, 2013. Ahead of the event, is running a series of Q&As with filmmakers and presenters. For more interviews, please see our WCFF feed.

Arabian leopard.
Sharjah, a captive Arabian leopard at the Sharjah Wildlife Centre in the UAE. Photo by Kevin Rushby

Today most people are more likely to associate Yemen with warfare and bizarre terrorism plots rather than wildlife. But Yemen is home to a surprising diversity of animals, including a population of the world’s smallest leopard: The Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr).

Native to the Arabian Peninsula, the Arabian leopard is today extremely rare — less than 200 animals are thought to survive in the wild. Despite the cat’s precarious position, there is relatively little local enthusiasm to protect a species that is widely seen as a threat to livestock.

Nevertheless one man in Yemen is trying to boost the value of leopard in the eyes of local people. David Stanton, an American teacher living in Yemen, had devoted his life to saving the Arabian leopard across its range.

Now a new film tells Stanton’s story. Written and directed by Guardian journalist and correspondent Kevin Rushby and long-time film producer Richard Johns, Saving the Leopard follows Stanton as he travels with a group of young Yemenis to Oman to train them in leopard conservation.

Saving the Leopard is debuting February 2, 2013 at the 3rd Annual New York Wildlife Conservation Film Festival. Ahead of its premiere, Rushby answered some questions from about the film and his career, which has included television production and presenting, travel writing and reporting, and authorship of several books. Rushby is an Arabic speaker who has covered the Middle East for 20 years, including stints living and working in Yemen and Sudan.

AN INTERVIEW WITH KEVIN RUSHBY What is your background?

Kevin Rushby
Kevin Rushby

Kevin Rushby: I’m the Chief Travel Writer of The Guardian newspaper and also author of various travel books. How long have you been making films? What are some other examples of your work?

Kevin Rushby: The film making is recent. I’ve always been a photographer and have illustrated my written work in the newspaper for many years. When the story idea for Saving the Leopard came to me, I teamed up with an experienced film maker, Tom Evans, and producer, Richard Johns to make Think Tank Films. I learned a lot from both of them and have also started filming and producing my own material for The Guardian. For example: A taxi driver’s tour of Durban, South Africa – video

With Think Tank Films I’ve also gone on to make two films in Kenya addressing environmental concerns about Maasai land issues and the collecting of rare plants. These are both available online: Why did you choose the Arabian leopard as a subject?

Kevin Rushby: What drew me to this was the fact that it is an animal that many people don’t even know exists. Not only that but it is in a country with almost no environmental protection record. I knew immediately that this combination, together with committed and interesting characters, would make a great story. What is the plot of the film?

Kevin Rushby: An American teacher called David Stanton who was living in Yemen decided to devote his life to saving the Arabian leopard. He knew it was a Herculean task but he is a particularly enthusiastic and optimistic character with a real love for Yemen and its people. The film starts with David persuading various local men to get interested in the idea of leopard conservation. There were two guys who stood out as characters: Ibrahim al-Wahdi and Nasser al-Milhani. We followed their preparations to go on a training course in Oman where they’d learn a bit about the work that goes into conservation. Since both these men were from rural backwaters, it was a fantastic experience to see them go on their first trip abroad and then find that they had skills and knowledge that were truly valued in the wider world. What was the most exciting or interesting part of making the film?

Kevin Rushby: Yemen is a very challenging place to film. I think at one point we had 26 soldiers and two armed vehicles protecting us from… well, we never found out quite what it was. But for me the long treks we did in Oman in the most remote and uninhabited desert mountains were incredible experiences. There was one spot where we found ourselves walking along a ledge on a cliff a thousand feet above the sea, following leopard tracks in the dust.

Jebel Samhan, Oman.
Jebel Samhan, Oman. Film crew and leopard project members on the escarpment, searching for tracks. Photo by Kevin Rushby What impact do you hope this film will have?

Kevin Rushby: The biggest thing is for people inside Yemen to become aware that they have an environment worth protecting and saving. So often people think that conservation is someone else’s problem, but we must all examine our own backyards and think what we can do. Me too! Is this the debut? Are you planning to show it elsewhere?

Kevin Rushby: This is the first film festival showing. What’s next on your agenda?

Kevin Rushby: I’ve got various things in the pipeline: filming in the Middle East again later this year, other assignments to Peru and Papua New Guinea.

Saving the Arabian Leopard

Think Tank Films, Ltd.
Kevin Rushby & Richard Johns, Producers
24 minutes
Country: Yemen
* World Premiere
** Award Winner for Best Foreign Category

Saturday, February 2, 1:30 PM – Purchase tickets

With less than 200 Arabian Leopards left in the wild, the species is on the verge of extinction. Oman has the only protected wild population in Jebel Samhan which borders Yemen. And it is the volatile Yemen that is vital to success. Despite its wars, insurrections and heavily armed population, Yemen probably has more leopards than anywhere else, but it is a population that is unknown and unprotected. Without it, however, the Omani population has no long-term future. Saving the Leopard tracks the efforts of a small group of Yemeni conservationists led by American David Stanton as they battle to start a program that will rescue the Yemeni leopard from the brink of extinction. A project to train 8 young Yemenis in leopard conservation is about to start. The stakes are huge: if this project fails, the Arabian leopard, a talismanic animal for Arab culture, is certainly doomed.

Biographies for Saving the Leopard

    Kevin Rushby ( is a Guardian journalist and correspondent whose Explorer column has introduced readers to new possibilities in travel. His books on history and travel have been translated into a dozen languages and his Hunting Pirate Heaven was a BBC Radio Book of the Week. He is an Arabic speaker who has covered the Middle East for 20 years. He lived and worked in Yemen and Sudan and has written about many aspects of the region. He works on television productions as both presenter and producer. As a television producer he is also responsible for three recent ThinkTank Films documentaries made for Al Jazeera and filmed in Yemen and Kenya

    Richard Johns has been making television and feature films for many years. Coming out of the UK’s film revival of the 1980s, Richard started his career in TV commercials, then television programme production and went on to become a major film producer with credits on everything from low budget British thrillers to Hollywood motion pictures. He has a track record for spotting and launching some of the UK’s most exciting new talent including writers, directors and actors. He has held senior and advisory roles in a number of film and television industry bodies such as Bafta and Skillset. He manages all of ThinkTank’s film productions and the post-production process, including all of the company’s recent productions for Al Jazeera.

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