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Times of Oman: Survey finds solid evidence of Arabian leopards in Musandam

EXTRACT: Shell Oman Marketing adopts a sustainable development strategy that is based on three Ps — People, Planet and Profits. Under planet, Shell Oman focuses on various environmental aspects. 
 
Times News Service
Sunday, February 11, 2007
 
MUSCAT— The Shell Oman co-sponsored biosphere expeditions survey, looking for evidence of the endangered Arabian Leopard, has found conclusive evidence of the big cat in Oman’s Musandam region.

Biosphere expeditions, an award-winning, non-profit wildlife-conservation organisation is on the second leg of its survey of the Musandam region in collaboration with the office of the adviser for conservation of the environment, Diwan of Royal Court.

The expedition had returned after last year’s findings indicated that the elusive feline might still be present in Musandam, but could not produce verifiable evidence.

The 2007 expedition returned to a much greener and well-watered Musandam, and had to contend with the cold, rain and some testing survey routes. However, a combination of hard work and help from local communities resulted in the exciting discovery of fresh leopard tracks, less than 24 hours old.

Hadi Hikmani from the office of the adviser for conservation of the environment and Tessa McGregor, Biosphere Expedition’s field scientist, identified tracks positively.

Team members have also reported hearing a leopard’s call, and there have been three reported sightings of the animal in the previous two months. These and other signs, add to mounting evidence that points to a small remaining population of Arabian Leopards in Musandam. “The entire team is elated, and we have set up camera traps at promising sites hoping to catch a glimpse of the Arabian Leopard,” said Kate Curnow, an expedition team member from Australia.

The expedition is expected to continue its search for more sign of this magnificent and elusive big cat till it concludes. “We are thrilled with the prospects of finding the Arabian leopards and yet in another location in Oman. Our partnership with Diwan of Royal Court and biosphere expeditions gives us pride on the realisation of another of our sustainable development agenda theme,” said Irshad Lawati, managing director of Shell Oman.

‘Biosphere Expedition’ was set up in 1999 by Dr Matthias Hammer to promote sustainable conservation of the planet’s wildlife by involving the public with scientists across the globe on real hands-on wildlife research and conservation expeditions.

“This is our first expedition to Oman, which is now in its second year. The office of the advisor for conservation of the environment requested us to collaborate on an important research project on Arabian leopards on the Musandam,” says expedition leader Peter Schütte.

“All expeditions produce important information. We’ve discovered new species, saved animals from culls, received awards — all over the world. The key objectives of expedition to Musandam include: survey the Musandam peninsula for the presence of Arabian leopard through field signs, by tracking and observation; assess the status and distribution of its prey species like the Arabian tahr and feral goats; survey for water holes as hotspots for leopard movement; and conduct interviews with local people to help with the assessment of the above and of the socio-economic interaction of humans and leopards,” he said.

Members of the team include local scientists. It comprises a team from the office of the adviser for conservation of the environment based in Muscat, led in the field by Hadi Musalam Al Hikmani.

The international scientist for this expedition is Tessa McGregor who read Biology at King’s College, London and specialised in animal behaviour and ecology. Tessa an expert on big cat biology has worked extensively on tigers in Bangladesh and (with Biosphere Expeditions) on snow leopards in the Altai Republic.

On the day of the expedition, team members said: “Specific activities are usually decided the night before. The whole set-up of the expedition is quite flexible so that you can participate according to the weather (usually sunshine and warm temperatures), your skills and general fitness and how you feel on the day.”

The typical day may consist of: (1) taking your survey group’s Land Rover into the mountains to survey access points and from there searching in the mountains and valleys for leopards, tahr and their field signs, or (2) surveying the area for water holes and recording their position, or (3) assisting with interviews.

Most research groups will return to the field camp for the night where the expedition cook prepares food. Please note that every member of the expedition can be rotated through all activities. There will also be rest and admin days as required and on some days you may be asked to help out with some camp and kitchen work.

The final findings of the expedition are: A very small population of Arabian leopard is clinging on in the Musandam peninsula. The expedition has established that the Musandam potentially still offers a suitable habitat to accommodate Arabian Leopard and its prey species. However a combination of new roads, development and severe drought over the past ten years has severely threatened the habitat. There is definite sign of three species of fox and caracal activity in the area. Nonetheless Arabian leopard and prey species have declined dramatically and are severely endangered. Musandam offers real possibilities in the future as a destination for eco-tourism — it offers dramatic scenery and with careful management could also support good wildlife populations.
On plans for future expeditions in Oman, team members said: “We will continue our successful relationship with the office of the adviser for conservation of the environment for the foreseeable future. In 2008, we will move the leopard survey south into the Dhofar area.”

Expedition is an opportunity for developing sustainable tourism. There are no other similar expeditions at present although it is proposed that Biosphere will return in 2007. There is enormous scope for eco-tourism in Oman given the biodiversity of Oman and the interest to develop tourism opportunities.

Some local people will be benefited from eco-tourism directly through employment as local guides for the expedition while others are providing services such as food and accommodation in Khasab.

The Ministry of Tourism is a partner in this project and has been assisting the expedition through its international offices and here in Oman.

Shell Oman Marketing adopts a sustainable development strategy that is based on three Ps — People, Planet and Profits. Under planet, Shell Oman focuses on various environmental aspects.

“We believe corporate entities have a duty to foster and sponsor initiatives that contribute to the national and global efforts to preserve and conserve. Biosphere expedition to Musandam also focuses on a topic that is nationally important and has bearing on eco-tourism in Oman. We have taken it an honour to have the opportunity to be associated with such an important initiative, results of which have a wide interest not only in the Sultanate, but also globally,” Al Lawati said.

Shell Oman operates in an industry which can have detrimental impact on the environment, unless if the operations are managed prudently and with full consciousness of potential implications.

“We draw a lot of experience through our relationship and close working terms with the Royal Dutch Shell group from the worldwide operations of the group and adapt the know and expertise locally to ensure environment-friendliness of our operations.

“Our policies are based on minimising impact to air, ground and underground water, where the procedures entail costly processes and investments in this context, which carry high value in this context. Our business processes across all the different businesses and functions are building around ensuring pre-operative inspections, prudent environmental management during the operations, and post-operative investigations and remediation,” managing director of Shell Oman, said.

On other similar conservation and development initiatives planned for the near future, Shell Oman said: “We endeavour to play two kinds of roles in the domain of conservation initiatives — one of directly investing into the process by sponsoring such initiatives as this expedition and whales and dolphins research project, as well as mobilising staff initiatives of beach cleaning operations, etc., and two of contributing to the process of raising national awareness to value of wild-life in general, through printing colouring books for school children as well as other printed media on such awareness.

“Besides this, our business development focuses directly on environment-friendly approaches in business development, too. An example would be the recent launch of our improved petrol, which takes into account the important aspect of reduced engine emissions into the environment, besides enhancing the engine efficiency for better mileage.”

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