The day is hot, without a breath of wind, and we’ve just reached the edge of the world. Khalid has rattled his 4X4 over a plateau of jagged rocks to bring us to the rim of the Jabal Samhanescarpment, a 4,265ft-high rock shelf sloping down to a coastal plain. Except we can’t see the coast. Or the plain. Below us is nothing but a thick, all-concealing blanket of cloud, a rolling neverland of muffled white spreading to the horizon.
“OK,” says Khalid, turning from the view, tilting his wide-brimmed hat and looking me in the eye. “Leopards.” We’ve come to the Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve, high up in the Dhofar region of southern Oman, in search of endangered Arabian leopards. Although that’s probably the wrong way of putting it. Khalid works for the Office for Conservation of the Environment and has been monitoring the reserve for 12 years, during which time he’s caught sight of just three leopards. Are there Arabian leopards here? Absolutely. The data suggests there are around 20. Are we likely to see one? No chance.
From our vantage point above the clouds, Khalid explains that long ago, with livestock herders and man-made settlements encroaching on the land above and below the escarpment, the leopards retreated to the only place they could — the steep, scrubby slopes of the escarpment itself. At around 60 miles in length, however, that’s a significant territory for 20 animals. “Arabian leopards are about half the size of African leopards, but very strong,” he continues. “One leopard can take down a camel. You need 10 men to do that.”
As Arabia’s biggest cat, the leopard is now protected by royal decree. The plan today is to check the images from one of the escarpment’s two-dozen camera traps, put in place to monitor the animals’ behaviour. We begin a long, steep descent down a rocky gully, scrambling around boulders and levering ourselves over tree roots until we reach a flatter lip of land partway down the slope. A scarred cliff bellies out above us. The land below is still all cloud, all hidden. Other than the constant dry whirr of insects, it feels as though we’re walking through a dream.
Half an hour later, Khalid stops on the trail and points to a low rock. Strung to it is a camera trap. He clicks it open and removes the memory card, and we sit in the thin shade of a tree to check the images. I feel tenser than I thought I would. Suddenly, the silent rubbly path we’ve been following becomes something more: a place where wildlife roams. A thin fox slinking past. A rock hyrax, goofing at the camera. Another fox. A prowling honey badger. But no leopards.
We sit under the tree, downing water and staring out at the escarpment. There’s a faint herby scent in the air. In the heat, the quiet is immense. Eventually, we begin walking back. Khalid outlines one of the trickier elements of his job, which is having to compensate local farmers whose animals are attacked by leopards. “We had to start doing it, because they were shooting at the leopards,” he says. “We pay 100 rials (around £200) for a goat, 300 rials for a cow and 500 rials for a camel.”
I dare to ask him whether, after 12 years, he ever yearns for a job elsewhere. He looks at me as though I’m mad, then gestures at the yawning belt of sun-blasted overhangs and craggy angles. “No. I love to work here,” he says. “I feel the leopards. I always feel the leopards. They’re in my blood.”
To arrange a trek to one of Jabal Sahman’s camera traps, contact Khalid Al Hakmani ([email protected]) a few weeks in advance of your trip. There’s no cost, but you’ll need to bring food.