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Leopards get a $20m boost from Panthera pact with Saudi prince

  • Big-cat conservation group Panthera has signed an agreement with Saudi prince and culture minister Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammad bin Farhan Al Saud in which the latter’s royal commission has pledged $20 million to the protection of leopards around the world, including the Arabian leopard, over the next decade.
  • The funds will support a survey of the animals in Saudi Arabia and a captive-breeding program.
  • The coalition also hopes to reintroduce the Arabian leopard into the governorate of Al-Ula, which Bader heads and which the kingdom’s leaders believe could jump-start the local tourism sector.

Wild cat conservation group Panthera has signed an agreement with a member of the Saudi royal family to help protect leopards worldwide, especially perhaps the rarest subspecies in the world, the Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr).

Panthera chairman Thomas Kaplan signed the deal June 7 in the county of Al-Ula with Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammad bin Farhan Al Saud, a Saudi prince and the kingdom’s minister of culture. The Royal Commission for Al-Ula, of which Bader is the governor, has promised $20 million over the next decade toward these efforts.

Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammad bin Farhan Al Saud and Panthera chairman Thomas Kaplan sign an agreement for $20 million to protect leopards. Image courtesy of Panthera.

“It is a very significant single-species contribution, which is very rare in modern-day conservation,” Fred Launay, Panthera’s president and CEO, told Mongabay.

In addition to contributing to Panthera’s Global Alliance for Wild Cats to protect wild cats where their futures are in doubt, the funding will go to a “two-pronged approach” for Saudi Arabia’s native and critically endangered leopards, Launay said.

First, the alliance needs a detailed survey to figure out how many are left. Launay estimates that only about 200 Arabian leopards in total remain in the wild, nearly all of which live in Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

An Arabian leopard. Image by Fred Launay/Panthera.

Arabian leopards were likely never very numerous to begin with, owing to the small slivers of suitable habitats that exist where they can find enough prey and water in these countries, Launay said. But the expanding human footprint in these places has winnowed those areas further. In some spots, too, leopards overlap with livestock herders, creating the potential for conflict. When leopards are seen as a threat to people’s livelihoods, they can quickly become the target of hunting, trapping and poisoning.

The second part of the strategy will be to develop a captive-breeding program to keep the genetic diversity in the subspecies high. Similar programs exist in the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Launay said the goal will be to reintroduce leopards into areas where none exist but where there’s still viable habitat.

A prehistoric burial complex in northwestern Saudi Arabia. Image courtesy of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula.

A key target for reintroduction will be the governate of Al-Ula in northwestern Saudi Arabia. Covering more than 22,500 square kilometers (8,700 square miles), Al-Ula houses sandstone mountains and cultural sites such as the 2,000-year-old city of Hegra, the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage-listed site. The country’s leaders believe that such ancient attractions, combined with the restoration of natural habitat and the eventual return of the Arabian leopard, could increase Saudi Arabia’s potential for tourism. It’s led them to support the conservation of the Arabian leopard, as well as other subspecies of the cat.

“It is our duty to protect, conserve and build the population numbers to preserve the species from becoming a footnote of history,” Bader said. “Our partnership with Panthera will help ensure that populations in other countries around the world are preserved before they reach the levels of endangerment faced today by our precious native big cats.”

Camels at Ashar in Saudi Arabia. Image courtesy of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula.

The Saudi royal family has garnered negative press recently, stemming most notably from the alleged involvement of the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Bader is reportedly close to the crown prince; the New York Times identified him as the secretive buyer of a $450 million painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci that now sits on the crown prince’s yacht. Bader was named Saudi Arabia’s first-ever minister of culture following the purchase.

Launay said Panthera does indeed wade into murky political situations, whether in Saudi Arabia or Myanmar or Mozambique — wherever cat populations are under threat.

“We do not have the luxury to only work with regimes, individuals or governments that we feel confident or comfortable with,” Launay said. “We have to intervene everywhere.”

Banner image of an Arabian leopard in a zoo in Abu Dhabi by shankar s. via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

John Cannon is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon


Jdeidi, T., Masseti, M., Nader, I., de Smet, K. & Cuzin, F. (2010). Panthera pardus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2010: e.T15954A5328595. Downloaded on 13 June 2019.

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