Saudi Arabia To Reintroduce Arabian Leopard To Empty Bedouin Island

In what is billed as an “abandoned and decrepit” eco-resort and royal park in northern Jordan, the country is embarked on an ambitious plan to create a “paradise island” from scratch with an ambitious plan to transform the entire region.

The resort, Arabic for “once upon a time,” is called AlUla. The nascent project is being spearheaded by government authorities, with assistance from Jeddah and Beirut, and aims to rebuild parts of the Arabian peninsula that were ravaged by war.

Indeed, the grim pictures accompanying the planned resort are reminiscent of the lengthy stretch of Arabian coastline once blanketed in natural vegetation and hilly terrain.

But the plan for the huge regeneration is ambitious, and so is the re-introduction of a living species.

Owing to poor management and habitat destruction, now mostly slovenly, AlUla once saw one of the rarest living species in the world, the Arabian leopard. Over the last century, the leopard population on the property plummeted to roughly 50 animals, before being completely wiped out by poachers. And while AlUla’s landscape still has a strong deer population, populations of the Arabian leopard have also been seriously diminished.

Around 200 leopards once roamed the region, all living within the park’s tiny perimeter. But after the leopards were eliminated, the rich habitat that the Arabian leopard adapted to in isolation was all but lost for other creatures as well. The rare mountain crane, one of AlUla’s formerly threatened animals, has been reported losing over 100 percent of its population over the past decade due to habitat destruction and overgrazing.

But although there are no details on when or exactly how many leopards will be reintroduced back into the wild once, the project’s vision is to turn AlUla into “an utterly unique, eco-tourism destination” and a “safari heaven,” said Abdullah Faour, the project’s Minister of Culture and Tourism.

Conceptual drawings for the envisioned Shingla Monastery, which would rise in the center of the island, suggest it could become a gateway and hub for the reintroduction of various animals and plant species.

“We want to repopulate the area,” Faour told CNN. “We want to create an island that’s a paradise island, just for nature and tourists.”

And it all began with one elderly Saudi prince, who bought the island and raised $100 million to buy the manor home it sits on. The prince’s family’s vast legacy extends back to the Middle Ages and serves as inspiration for the project’s early version.

But a concrete vision is nowhere near its genesis stage. The initial decision to build the main residence on the island was made in the 1980s, when efforts began to save the site from violence. However, little went according to plan.

After repeated attempts to sell the property, the state of Qatar entered the picture in 2013. However, the kingdom’s motivations to acquire the government-owned AlUla, or Shingla, remain shrouded in mystery. But Qatar’s scope for reform, such as its campaign to curb the spread of HIV in the region, has put pressure on the kingdom to hand over the property, allowing it to become more available to sustainable development.

As expected, the purchase of the land from the Saudi royal family sparked criticism from activists. But critics have since shifted their focus to the project’s ongoing exploration of the Arabian leopard, instead of the decision to buy the island.

Environmental groups claim Qatar has been covertly importing the leopard, using DNA testing from its southern leg, as part of a campaign to increase awareness of its native species. Despite a 2010 lawsuit, that was later dropped, the government of Qatar refused to divulge its methods.

But despite such criticism, environmental groups have praised the AlUla project for its overall vision and vision to “rewild” the region.

“It is really exciting,” said Rolena Jhizi, wildlife program manager for the World Wildlife Fund-Jordan. “Saudi Arabia has been very open to discussing what the future of the environment looks like in a way that we haven’t seen before.”

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