Wildlife & Biodiversity

‘Dhib’ & ‘Nimr’: Can Israel-Palestine’s Negev, Judaean deserts ever revive populations of world’s smallest wolf, leopard?

The last Arabian leopards were sighted in the area in the noughties; the Arabian wolf hangs on tenaciously; but can they be revived if the region is perpetually at war?

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Thursday 12 October 2023
(Left) An Arabian Leopard. Photo: Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.5; (Right) An Arabian Wolf. Photo: iStock_

The Holy Land is in flames again after Palestinian group Hamas overran southern Israel on October 7, 2023, from the Gaza Strip. And while the current media blitz is all about the human casualties of war, what about the iconic wildlife of the region, including the world’s smallest wolf and leopard?

The Arabian wolf (Canis lupus arabs) and the Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr) are found across the whole of the Arabian Peninsula. Dhib and Nimr are the Arabic terms for the two animals that have featured in the culture and folklore of the region’s peoples.

However, in the northern half of their range, both animals are critically endangered. The deserts of the Holy Land — the Negev, that dominates southern Israel till the Gulf of Aqaba, and the Judaean desert which is shared by Israel and the Palestinian West Bank — were once home to both.

But sadly, this may now no longer be the case at least for the leopard.

A study titled Genomics reveals introgression and purging of deleterious mutations in the Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr) published in July this year noted that the Arabian leopard has lost as much as 98 per cent of its historical range, with populations highly isolated and fragmented.

This is particularly true for Israel and Palestine.

“The Arabian leopard is extinct in its entire northern range, including all historic distribution ranges on the Sinai Peninsula, the Negev, and the Judaean Desert. Remnant nuclei of Arabian leopards are today restricted to Oman, Yemen, and possibly some animals in the southern part of Saudi Arabia,” Switzerland-based Urs Breitenmoser, co-chair, IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group, told Down To Earth (DTE).

He added:

The latest observations from the Negev date around 2010 — not so long ago, but these were probably the last survivors; the reproducing population was already gone by then.

Things are better for the Dhib though. A study titled Tolerance of wolves shapes desert canid communities in the Middle East, published last year in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation had this to say:

The Arabian wolf remains the sole apex predator across most of its range since the extirpation of the Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) and the near-eradication of the Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr) during the last several decades … The only known stable population is confined to the Arava Valley and Negev Desert in Israel, where legal protection is enforced and acceptance of wolves is high.

Adi Barocas, from San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research in the United States, agreed. He told DTE: “The Arabian wolf is the top carnivore in the Negev desert ecosystems, adapted for life in an environment with reduced productivity.”

But the wolf has its own set of problems. The researchers found that while wolves were mostly accepted in the crop-growing areas of the region, their acceptance was low in pastoral areas.

The researchers also found that Arabian wolves, like those in temperate areas such as North America and Eurasia, ‘suppress’ smaller canids like jackals and foxes in the Negev and the Arava Valley, which forms the border between Israel and Jordan and thus have an important ecological role to play in the desert ecosystem.

Barocas, who was lead author of a 2018 paper titled Behavioral adaptations of a large carnivore to human activity in an extremely arid landscape, agreed:  

... it is known in general that top carnivores have important ecosystem functions like keeping herbivore populations in check and consuming carrion. 

“Conservation efforts should focus on increasing tolerance and coexistence within pastoralist landscapes by promoting education around the ecological importance of the Arabian wolf and strategies towards coexistence,” the researchers recommended in the 2022 paper.

They added that reducing hunting rates, not only of wolves, but also their prey, was imperative “as it would lead to the recovery of the wolf’s natural prey base and alleviate the need for wolves to rely on livestock for sustenance”.

What about Nimr? Can it ever roam the Negev and the Judaean again?

“From an ecological point of view, yes. Leopards need adequate prey, suitable habitat and a minimum protection from human persecution,” Breitenmoser told DTE.

“I do not know the prey situation in the Negev, but I assume that these very arid habitats have not changed much. The most critical aspect in these environments is generally competition between wild and domestic prey, over-grazing of the vulnerable vegetation and resulting conflicts with herders if leopards are forced to hunt livestock,” he added.

Conflict with humans and food sources is one thing. But what about the fact that Israel and Palestine are all about humans in conflict with other humans?

“The response of large carnivores to armed conflicts can differ considerably and reach from negative to positive, depending on the impact of the conflict on the survival of the carnivores and their prey,” said Breitenmoser.

He added though that even if there is no increased direct threat, wildlife conservation generally and leopard conservation particularly requires large-scale and cross-sectoral cooperation, and this can be hampered considerably through conflicts.

“On the other hand, conserving the shared natural heritage is often a good way to build bridges between human groups that otherwise don’t share a lot of values,” he noted.

Barocas said as far as wolf populations in the Negev were concerned, there was nothing to worry. “There has been no armed conflict in the Negev and Arava for the last 50 years (although military training happens in some areas). They are unanimously considered by the international community as part of the state of Israel,” he said.

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