Dhofar, Oman – Tucked into the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula, the nation of Oman sits in a tumultuous space – sharing land borders with Yemen and an expansive southern coast with the occasional Somali pirates.
But while adjacent Yemen struggles to rein in violence across multiple provinces – including attacks on the military in the east and south as well as clashes with rebels in the north – Oman largely operates without the burden of either the domestic unrest or armed groups that plagues its neighbour.
With the lingering fear that turmoil or fighting could spill into its peaceful terrain, however, Oman has discreetly begun preliminary surveys on a proposed security fence spanning the length of its border with Yemen. But a group of regional conservationists is concerned that the ecological consequences of the 290km-long fence are not being considered.
“Part of the struggle is convincing officials that this area needs protecting and is critical from a nature perspective,” said Mohammed al-Duais, a Yemeni biologist and executive director of the Foundation for Endangered Wildlife (FEW), whose team in 2011 led one of the only comprehensive ecological surveys ever conducted on the Yemeni side of the remote region.
Dense flora and fauna might seem unexpected in an area dominated by the vast Empty Quarter. It is, essentially, one of the largest sand deserts in the world, spilling from Saudi Arabia down along the meeting point between Yemen’s al-Mahrah Governorate and Oman’s Dhofar Governorate.
But the southern portion of this Yemen-Oman border reveals a multitude of ecological surprises, from rugged peaks to valleys and thick forests. Frankincense groves, renowned since antiquity, flourish. And an estimated 200 Arabian leopards stalk the area’s mountains – the only confirmed sustainable habitat left for one of the most critically endangered animals on the planet.
It was during FEW’s landmark 2011 research trip to Hawf – a bountiful, 10-square-kilometre area along the border between al-Mahrah and Dhofar – that field researchers used camera traps to snap the first-ever photographs of the Arabian leopard in Yemen.
“Proving the leopard still exists [in Hawf] was an important accomplishment,” al-Duais told Al Jazeera, noting their research struggled amid limited funding, poaching and scepticism about the animal’s continued presence in Yemen.
Across the border in Oman, researchers with the Office for Conservation of the Environment were operating in the same geographic landscape but navigating an entirely different financial situation. There, Omani officials had declared the Arabian leopard protected since 1976 and had already established the Jebel Samhan Nature Reserve 14 years earlier, providing funding and security for the confirmed two dozen leopards across the reserve’s uninhabited 5,200-square-kilometre range.
Part of the struggle is convincing officials that this area needs protecting and is critical from a nature perspective.
Though Yemeni officials declared Hawf as a “protected” area in 2005, FEW made the first concerted effort to catalogue wildlife in the area. But with work imminent on the proposed border fence, ending up on one side or the other could prove the difference between existence and extinction for the Arabian leopard.
Following the conclusion of a secret bidding process, preliminary surveys along the fence line began earlier this year after Oman awarded a contract to an Indian development company, according to border officials. They estimate the construction process will be completed by 2018.
“There are regular incidents along the border,” Yemeni lawyer Haykal Bafana told Al Jazeera. “The motivation to build up a fence is clear.”
Bafana points to frequent instances of animal, drug and weapons smuggling along the Mahrah-Dhofar line. And in the wake of an embarrassing incident in 2012 where Omani officials were forced to admit that a handful of al-Qaeda operatives had crossed into the country from Yemen, the message behind the fence is a firm one – Oman will not welcome illicit activity.
But while Yemen deals with a humanitarian crisis caused by the recent forcible return of a quarter of a million migrant workers from Saudi Arabia, and as its northern neighbour constructs its own restrictive 1,600km-long border fence with Yemen, FEW hopes the environmental consequences of the Oman-Yemen fence will not be ignored.
“It would cut the population [of Arabian leopards] in two,” Abdulrahman al-Eryani, Yemen’s former Minister of Water and the Environment, told Al Jazeera. The creation of two distinct breeding groups unable to access each other for mating – already from one decimated population – could prove disastrous, he said.
Though they acknowledged preliminary work on the border fence, Omani officials declined Al Jazeera’s requests for further comment.
Beyond the Arabian leopard, FEW has spent months in Hawf documenting over 4,000 images of local wildlife, including species never before seen in the country.
A robust border fence would not be the first time Oman’s priorities have affected its rich ecosystem. In 2007, amid a decimated oryx population and a governmental proposal to reduce the size of the protected area by 90%, Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary had the embarrassing distinction of becoming the first UNESCO site in the history of the four-decade-old organisation to lose its World Heritage status.
To some, the border fence issue raises all-too-familiar concerns.
“Most complaints in Mahrah involve [people] feeling like they have no voice,” Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow at Oxford University, told Al Jazeera. Grazing rights that should allow pastoral tribesmen living in Yemen the ability to cross several kilometres into Omani territory are already impeded, she noted, and “a fence clearly wouldn’t facilitate [this].”
Follow Gaar Adams on Twitter: @GaarAdams