September 19, 2009 / 9:37 PM / 10 years ago

Russia's Putin brings leopards back to Caucasus

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin released two leopards into the wild Saturday in a bid to revive the fortunes of the rare cats in the Caucasus and soothe ecological worries over 2014 Sochi Games.

A five-year-old snow leopard Bianka rests in its open-air cage at Royev Ruchey Zoo in Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, March 20, 2008. REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

Caucasian or Persian leopards disappeared from the Caucasus in the 1920s due to excessive hunting. Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov sent two male leopards caught in Turkmenistan by plane to Sochi. Female leopards are to follow.

“We are standing here and admiring your animals. Glorious animals, very beautiful,” Putin, surrounded by International Olympic Committee members, told Berdymukhamedov by telephone as he stood by the cage in the Sochi national park.

Russia won the right to host 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and major construction works are about to begin.

Critics say huge construction projects may harm the environment. They question the need for spending billions of dollars on the games during a financial crisis and say they do not believe all the infrastructure would be ready by 2014.

“I think Russia is on its way to organizing an exceptional Olympic Games,” French Alpine skiing legend and IOC member Jean-Claude Killy told reporters.

Russia’s most popular politician, Putin, enjoys a tough guy image, being photographed riding bare-chested on horse back, fishing in Siberia or saving tigers in Russia’s Far East.

Saturday, Putin stared in silence at one of the leopards, which initially refused to abandon his traveling cage, visibly stressed after its long journey.

“Good boy,” Putin said as the cat snarled at him and jumped out while guards and reporters pulled back. “We have found common language, they understand me,” said Putin.

The leopards will gradually move to a larger fenced area of the park before they are released into the wild. Scientists plan to bring female leopards at a later stage and hope some 30-50 cats will be living around Sochi in six years.

Reporting by Gleb Bryanski, writing by Dmitry Zhdannikov

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