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 Russia Plans To Revive Rare Persian Leopard

 

Persian leopard in the wild (photo WWF-Russia/V. Lukarevsky, RAS/S. Fatee

 

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.

 

One of the two leopards released in Sochi National Park (photo

WWF-Russia/Olga Pegova)

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.