Controversial construction plan tarnishes Olympic legacy
Tom Parfitt Krasnaya Polyana
Published at 12:01AM, October 31 2015
A rare species of leopard that is supposedly championed by President Putin is under threat from construction at a ski resort used for the Sochi Winter Olympics last year.
Mr Putin took members of the International Olympic Committee to visit a breeding centre near Sochi before the Games, and posed for pictures with one of the leopards. He praised the work of the centre, saying that it was unique and that “the restoration of a lost animal species is part of Sochi’s Olympic legacy”.
Conservationists in the area have been working towards releasing a number of leopards into the wild — but the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says the Russian government has reneged on its promise to enlarge a local wildlife reserve, and that construction is already taking place close to Krasnaya Polyana, in the Caucasus mountains. The development will destroy a vital part of the animals’ habitat.
“If these plans for resort expansion go ahead then the leopard reintroduction programme will become completely pointless,” Igor Chestin, the head of WWF-Russia, said. He is calling for a boycott of international sporting competitions at the Roza Khutor and Laura ski venues, where Olympic events were held, until the plans are reversed.
There are fewer than 1,000 Persian leopards worldwide, mostly in central Asia and Iran. There are thought to be no more than 15 in Russia.
WWF, the Russian Academy of Sciences and other partners initiated the breeding programme a decade ago and they plan to release the first two leopards into the wild in the spring. Their aim is to establish a “viable population” of 100 to 150 animals in the Caucasus.
The leopards will be set down in the Caucasian State Biosphere Nature Reserve, which is a Unesco world heritage site, but they are expected to move south along a corridor of land that is outside the reserve.
Russia promised to add that stretch of land to the reserve as part of its Winter Games bid campaign — but now appears to have ditched that plan.
Construction has begun on a forest road close to the Roza Khutor resort, where pistes and three ski lifts will be built. However, Mr Chestin said that part of the new road had already strayed into a protected zone of Sochi National Park where construction is forbidden.
“We are hoping to draw Mr Putin’s attention to what is going on,” he said.