But he moves forward enthusiastically when his keeper, Jane Budd, a South African veterinarian approaches.
“The Arabian leopard is the smallest of all the nine subspecies of leopard,” Jane explains.
“Experts estimate that there are fewer than 200 left in the wild. These are further endangered because they live in small groups and each has a tiny population so the risk of extinction due to inbreeding is high.”
In order to counter this threat, The Arabian Wildlife Centre has been breeding the leopard for a decade.
As the only institution in the United Arab Emirates that is solely devoted to the preservation of wildlife indigenous to the Arabian peninsula, this academic institution and visitor centre has raised awareness among the local population about conserving the region’s rich natural biodiversity.
According to Hana Saif Al Suwaidi, chairman of the Environment and Protected Areas Authority in Sharjah, the common picture of a desert as endless rolling sand dunes is wrong.
“We have a variety of terrain,” she explains. “From mountainous areas, mangroves, coastal regions and wadis, the Arabian desert is vast and complex, it supports a wide variety of biodiversity.”
Although there have been no sightings of the Arabian leopard for 15 years in the United Arab Emirates, the known populations are in neighbouring Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
“The Arabian Wildlife Centre is already collaborating with institutions in each of these three countries,” Hana says.
“We exchange information on breeding techniques and we also exchange animals so that each centre has a full complement of indigenous mammals.”
A short drive away Paul Verkammen, operations manager of the Arabian Wildlife Centre is putting out feed for the four oryx and seven gazelle that have been recently released into the Dulaimah protected area.
“We also released foxes, hare, reptiles and scorpion,” Paul explains. “Because of the drought we are having to provide food and water for the animals — otherwise they wouldn’t survive.”
Dulaimah is the only remaining mature woodland in the whole of Sharjah. Although oryx and gazelle were indigenous in the region, rapid urban expansion has encroached onto the desert — reducing habitats and pushing animals to the edge of extinction