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
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
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
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.