Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Rare leopards returning to Russian mountains at mercy of Kremlin split

Roland Oliphant, in the mzymta valley 17 JUNE 2016 • 8:40AM

Oblivious to the hidden camera monitoring her movements, Victoria stretched, shrugged, and washed herself with the graceful nonchalance of any feline that has enjoyed a good meal. 

But Victoria is no ordinary cat, and her contentment came from no ordinary meal. 

"Deer, ibex, wild boar, rabbits, raccoons, badgers," said Alexander Yakubov, the zoologist monitoring her movements from a cabin in Russia's Caucasus mountains. "We feed them anything really, and always live. They have to be used to hunting all kinds of prey." 

With limbs strong enough to kill a deer, a Persian leopard is every bit as beautiful as the landscape in southern Russia from which it vanished nearly a century ago. 

But a unique effort to reintroduce this rare predator to the Western Caucasus is now in peril amid an internal Kremlin power struggle over the legacy of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. 

The idea to reintroduce leopards to Russia was born over 30 years ago, when a zoology student at Moscow State University arrived in the mountain range above Sochi to do undergraduate field work. 

“Persian leopards had vanished from the Russian side of the Western Caucasus by the early 1920s,” said Igor Chestin, now the president of the Russian branch of the World Wildlife Fund.

“But that year, 1983, rangers spotted a female and two cubs. They were never seen again, but that was when we started to think ‘hold on, why don’t we try and bring them back’?” 

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