September 28, 2009
by Antoine Blua
There's intense activity around Russia's Black Sea port of Sochi ahead of the Winter Olympics due to be held there in 2014, as billions of dollars are being spent to build infrastructure and Olympic venues.
But Russian authorities and conservationists are also going ahead with a project to restore a population of Persian leopards to the region.
It's part of a plan to counter fierce criticism by activists that Olympics-related construction will harm wilderness around Sochi.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently presided over the transfer of two male leopards, a gift from Turkmenistan, into pens in Sochi National Park. The project aims to introduce three pairs of males and females to a $3 million breeding center.
Igor Chestin, director of the Russian branch of the World Wildlife Fund -- which initiated the leopard project -- says the offspring will be released into the wild in the neighboring Caucasus State Biosphere Reserve.
"We've put special measures [in place] to increase the number of prey for the leopards, primarily chamois, ibex, red deer, and wild boar," says Chestin. "And we'll distribute salt licks every year. We expect to see the number of animals increase to 40 to 50 within about 15 to 20 years."
The Persian leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor) is one of the largest of subspecies of leopards, with a long tail and a highly-prized pelt patterned with black rosettes and spots.
The leopards lived in mountainous areas throughout the Caucasus but largely disappeared last century because of poaching and a shrinking habitat.
A mere 10-12 wild leopards are believed to exist in remote areas of Russia's northeastern Caucasus. The same number is believed to remain in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, while up to seven animals reportedly to live in Georgia.
Chestin says the only viable populations exist in Turkmenistan, which has more than 100 leopards, and in Iran, with up to 300 leopards.
"The population in the Caucasus is not really viable. It's sustained only because of an inflow of leopards from Iran," Chestin says. "Our idea was to establish another northern nucleus of the leopard population that would support small groups in the Russian Caucasus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan."
Chestin says Ashgabat has pledged to send more cats to Russia, and negotiations are also under way with Iran.
The endangered leopard is protected in all countries in which it lives, including Afghanistan, where little is known about its status.
In the southern Caucasus countries of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, conservation work is focused on protecting the leopard's last remaining habitats and cracking down on poaching.
Chestin says the leopards will be able to survive there in isolated pockets if their populations are supplemented by new animals from Iran or Russia.
"The primary task in the southern Caucasus is to expand protected areas as much as possible, but there isn't much room left because most of the areas have already been developed by humans," Chestin says. "There are no more than two or three adult animals in one site, so these groups are very vulnerable."
Chestin says conservation and anti-poaching measures in Turkmenistan have enabled the leopard population there to increase by some 40 percent over the last decade. He says that experience has given optimism about the effort to restore leopard populations in the Caucasus.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org