Persian leopards set to make roaring comeback in Russia's Western Caucasus
This is the first ever attempt of the leopard reintroduction – bringing an extinct animal back into the wild nature. Until the mid-20th century, the Persian leopard was widely distributed over the mountainous areas across the Caucasus. However, by 1950s, its population dramatically declined, and in many areas it had become entirely extinct through human activities.
In 2005, experts from WWF-Russia and the Russian Academy of Science developed an ambitious long-term program of reintroduction (restoration) of the leopard in the Caucasus. In 2007, this program was adopted by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation, and since 2009 President Vladimir Putin has been personally supporting the Program.
WWF-Russia’s CEO Igor Chestin together with the Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Khloponin took part in the release. “We came to a very important stage of the program – the actual release of the first animals into the wild. However, this is only the beginning. To create a stable self-sustaining population there must be at least 50 adult animals in the region. This is the goal our program aims to achieve,” said Igor Chestin.
The founders of the new population of the Persian leopard in Russia will be three individuals – Victoria, Akhun and Killi. All three were born in the Centre for Breeding and Reintroduction of the Leopard in Sochi National Park founded in 2009 with WWF-Russia’s active involvement and support. Leopards confined in zoos cannot be effectively released into the wild, because they can’t hunt and have no fear of humans.
Initially, the Center hosted two males from Turkmenistan and two females from Iran. Later, a leopard couple was brought from the Lisbon Zoo, which had their first litter in the Center in 2013. In total, 14 cubs were born in the Center.
Here young leopards reached the breeding age and received a specially-designed training for independent survival in the wild. Satellite collars were put on the animals to allow scientists to obtain information about their movements after the release. Additionally, 24 photo-traps were also installed on the ground to monitor the animals.
Leading zoologists will be monitoring the released leopards daily. In case of emergency a mobile response unit has all the necessary equipment to locate and reach the affected animal.
Since the beginning of the program 10 years ago special measures have been taken to prepare the territory, in particular to increase the number of prey base and to establish comprehensive anti-poaching control. Local communities were informed about the rules of behavior in areas where leopards live.
“Protecting and maintaining this vibrant landscape is key to the success of the Persian leopard reintroduction programme,” added Chestin.
The Program is implemented by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation with the participation of the Sochi National Park, Caucasus (Kavkazsky) State Nature Biosphere Reserve, A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Moscow Zoo and WWF-Russia, and with the support from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA).
Conflict around the protected territories – future home of the leopard
Russia’s current plans to extend Olympic ski resorts into a UNESCO World Heritage site go against the commitments to expand the site given by the Russian Government during the preparations for the Olympics. These plans also threaten the Persian leopard reintroduction program. Recent amendments to the law made it legal to build a variety of infrastructure – from hotels to ski trails – in strict nature reserves including the World heritage sites. Two resorts which hosted the 2014 Sochi Olympics – Roza Khutor and Laura – are planning to expand into the protected areas through four separate projects over the next seven years. The plans cause serious concern in the scientific community, particularly because of the impact on the Persian leopard reintroduction program.