On the trail of the Arabian leopard

A group of Yemeni, Omani and American conservationists undertake a mission to save the world's most endangered big cat.

| Oman, Environment, Wild Animals, Middle East, Yemen

By Kevin Rushby

Filming in Yemen was never going to be easy. There was a deteriorating political situation – and then there was the Arabian leopard.

For most of the 20th century, nobody had anything in mind for the animal except eradication – their numbers dropped to an estimated 200, and those remaining learned to avoid humans at all costs.

We had some horrible moments during the planning stage, where someone would sit back and say: "What if we don't see a leopard?"

"No one hardly ever sees these animals – we are filming people who are trying to establish if they are there," I would explain.

That is a hard sell in television. But there was some big plus points in our favour. There was this tiny band of conservationists – Yemeni, American and Omani – all trying to save what is the world's most endangered big cat from extinction.

This was what fascinated me: Could a small band of committed individuals really make a difference? Wasn't it all hopeless?

David Stanton in Yemen had been struggling to interest anyone in the plight of the leopard. His group was – and still is – fighting almost without money or political support. Worst of all, they are fighting the common perception of outsiders that Yemen is all about war, guns and al-Qaeda.

He was now hoping to take a group of young Yemenis to Oman and train them in the use of trail cameras. At the same, time they would become leopard 'ambassadors', travelling back to their remote villages and, hopefully, arguing for preservation. We wanted to get in and see that incredible conservation struggle in action.

On the ground in Sana'a, we were soon grappling with the problems of a country on the brink of political chaos. Locations were simply impossible to reach because of tribal problems. Road blocks could take ages with camera gear, and there were dozens of checkpoints. A satellite phone in my bag was confiscated.

One important character, a former leopard hunter, was 100km away in an area we could not hope to reach. Time and time again, director Tom Evans and myself found ourselves huddled together re-thinking the story, re-planning the shoot, trying to see our way through the jungle of bureaucracy, corruption and travel restrictions. Fortunately our main remaining characters – Ibrahim al Wada'i and Nasr al Milhani – had arrived and were showing some real onscreen promise.

The plan was to move to the south coast of Yemen, but by now the dangers of travelling in Yemen meant some of us had to fly while the others went by road. When we all met up again by the Indian Ocean, we felt jubilant, but the political tensions were, if anything, worse.

Our protection squad had increased in size, and all were soldiers from north Yemen – in an area brimming with sullen resentment at northern domination. Still, Yemen is a country where people have a sense of humour, and we had started to have fun.

For some of the guys, the chance to don shorts and swim in the sea was a total novelty, and we all enjoyed their childish enthusiasm. Back in the mountains, the amount of wildlife was encouraging and we started to pick up trails; wolves and hyenas were out there. No leopards though.

We crossed into Oman, survived some dreadful bureaucratic snafus, and made it to Jebel Dhofar, one of the most amazing mountain ranges on earth – a place that is steep, harsh and yet stunningly beautiful. We were sleeping rough, sometimes in bitterly cold weather, but we were loving it.

For us filmmakers, the joy was to see how our characters blossomed onscreen, growing in confidence and assurance, even suggesting shots and scenes. Ibrahim and Nasr were brilliant.

Now that we had escaped the towns, we had moments of sublime unadulterated joy. Walking in the mountains was incredible, although there were frustrations about the limitations of our equipment. There was one scene that we could just not figure out how to do without a helicopter: a narrow ledge led down an overhang in a cliff face.

In the sand, caught on the ledge, were leopard tracks.

Three thousand feet below in the ocean, we could see dolphins zooming through the turquoise water to attack huge schools of fish. It was totally impossible to take it all in with the camera. Fortunately we did manage to capture the sheer vertical harshness of those mountains in other locations.

Best of all was seeing how a group of young Yemeni trainees could become so passionate about saving the leopard. That was what I wanted to film: Ordinary people in a much-maligned country, people without connections or wealth, becoming vital players in an international effort.

There is still much to do, of course, and David Stanton's organisation, The Friends of the Arabian Leopard in Yemen, is still desperately short of funds and support, but a start has been made.

As for that elusive big cat. Did we find it? I'm not saying. Just watch the film.

Click here to watch the film.

All photos are courtesy of Kevin Rushby.

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