MOSCOW Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has tracked a Siberian tiger and posed with a polar bear, on Wednesday took his love of wildlife to new heights by flying with cranes - to lead them on a migration route.
Putin has communed with wild animals several times as part of an effort to create the image of a clean-living, nature-loving person during his 12 years as Russia's paramount leader.
This time around, he donned a baggy white costume with a spacious helmet and goggles and flew in a motorized deltaplane light aircraft surrounded by several young cranes that were born in captivity, in order to help introduce them to the wild.
"They got used to it. They are not afraid, they are overtaking the deltaplane," a smiling Putin said after landing, as shown on broadcaster Rossiya 24.
"They are overtaking, approaching the wing from the left, from the right, from above. Well done. Beautiful guys. Cute. They are three months old but already quite big."
The exercise in the Yamal peninsula was aimed at prompting the birds to follow the plane and hence prepare them for their migration route - part of the "Flight of Hope" project to protect the endangered, white Siberian Crane.
Visibly pleased, Putin said it had been his idea to fly the deltaplane, although it appeared to be steered most of the time by another person in a similar white costume sitting behind him.
Earlier in the day, reports of Putin's planned new stunt spawned an array of amused comment on the Internet, with one cartoon referring to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cables in which Putin was deemed Russia's "alpha-dog".
The cartoon portrayed the Putin in a black suit with grey wings fixed to his hands, telling three birds: "Let's assign the roles right away - I am the alpha-crane!"
Other postings included two Russian paintings of failed human attempts to fly like a bird - one of a boy lying on the ground with wings at his side and another of a man dropping to earth despite the wings attached to his arms.
Macho stunts by Putin, who turns 60 in October, have helped his image but have also irritated some Russians and become a target for satire for opponents.
Putin, a former KGB spy back at the Kremlin for his third term in office, in the winter faced the largest wave of dissent against his spell over Russia since he first became president.
Though the protests have lost some steam, opposition activists on Wednesday eagerly jumped on the latest stunt by reinterpreting the lyrics of a 1980s disco song, "Deltaplane" - "Possibly, only a hang-glider will help me" - as heralding Putin's eventual departure from power.
(Editing by Steve Gutterman and Michael Roddy)