MOSCOW (REUTERS) -- Russia has launched a scheme to rebuild the population of endangered Persian leopards in its Caucasus mountains in time for the Winter Olympics it wants to host in the region in 2014.
Environmental group WWF, with backing from two Russian firms, is to put baby leopards bred in captivity into special pens in a national park before releasing them into the wild.
Animal conservationists began construction work on the pens on Wednesday at the start of a six-year pilot scheme to reintroduce the graceful feline species, which has been hunted to the edge of extinction in Russia.
Persian leopards can be found in the wild in Russia's Caucasus region but the country does not have a viable, self-contained population. They only survive because they migrate into neighbouring Georgia and mate with animals there.
"The stakes are high, but we are glad that our idea of reintroducing the leopard in the Russian Caucasus has received support for the first time, not only moral support, but financial support as well, from Russian business," said Igor Chestin, the chief of WWF in Russia.
The project also involves new anti-poaching schemes and funds to monitor the leopards, with funding from mobile phone operator Beeline and the Roza Khutor ski resort, which is controlled by oligarch Vladimir Potanin's Interros group.
Russia's bid to host the Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi has made it keen to demonstrate its environmental credentials after environmental groups initially said it would cause damage to the region's fragile ecology.
The high hopes for the Persian leopard contrast with growing pessimism about the survival of Amur leopards in Russia's far east. One of only seven females left in the wild was shot by hunters last month and less than 35 survive, well below the numbers required for their long-term survival.