More than work: Igor Chestin
President of WWF Russia
The idea of leopard reintroduction in the Caucasus appeared more than 30 years ago when I first came to the Caucasus Nature Reserve. In 1983, I started my first research work there and then went every year. Course works, diploma, Ph. D. all have been done there. I studied brown bear ecology, walked in their trails, studied their individual sites and food — I had about 300 encounters with bears in this region, but I never saw a leopard in the Caucasus: in those places, they disappeared around the 1920s, there were only occasional visits after that.
In 1983, I often went to the reserve with an operative group, which caught poachers there. During one of the raids, they saw a female leopard with two kittens, which was hunting a fox. Since then, no one has seen females with cubs, but it was then that my mentor and friend Professor Anatoly Kudaktin first thought of restoring leopards in this region. I returned to it only in the early 2000s, when I was already working for WWF.
To see where the leopards have survived and where they can be restored, we conducted an assessment of the number of Central Asian leopards across the Caucasus. It turned out that the most viable grouping remained in Iran — at least 200 animals live there, and those leopards that still occur in Armenia and in the south of Azerbaijan are completely dependent on animals coming from Iran. In Georgia, as in Russia, the leopard has already disappeared at that time. We studied the region and realized that there was practically no place for the leopard. Sufficient areas of undeveloped forests suitable for leopards only exist in the west of the Caucasus — in Russia and Abkhazia. This is about 1 million hectares: theoretically, up to a hundred animals can live there, which would become the second, northern core of Central Asian leopard population, a separate viable grouping. The Northwest Russian Caucasus and Iran could together ensure the existence of smaller groups in Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In 2005, together with the Academy of Sciences, we developed a reintroduction program, approved it in the Ministry of Natural Resources of the Russian Federation, coordinated with a group of specialists on the felines of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and found sponsors for the construction of Leopard Breeding and Rehabilitation Center in Sochi National Park in the Caucasus. Following that the Government of Russia allocated additional money within the Olympic budget. The Sochi Center is the only center in Russia for breeding rare animals, built according to all the standards. It is equipped with all that is necessary: remote control systems, «electronic shepherds», security cameras. First animals arrived there in 2009, now there are two breeding pairs, they already had 5 litters.
Last year, three animals from the first and second litters have been released. To choose a suitable place, we drove around the whole of the Caucasus Nature Reserve on horseback, and after choosing, provided for 8 years enhanced protection from poachers and help ungulates to survive difficult seasons. The first year after the release of leopards has shown an absolute success of the program: the animals are completely wild, and they hunt very different prey. For a year there was not a single attack on livestock, moreover, they were never spotted by people, although sometimes they were in close proximity. Leopards have mastered assimilated areas; we monitor their movements via satellite collars. Information comes every day at 11 am, and every morning, wherever I am, I open the map and watch how our leopards are doing. In general, it is clear that we chose the place for the release very correctly. Next year, it is planned to release five more animals.
Now everything that concerns leopards’ training in the center and monitoring in nature works well, but unfortunately, there is no development. Due to the not very clear situation with the management of the program in the Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia, the departure of key employees, the international cooperation has stopped. Our foreign colleagues simply do not know with whom to work, who makes the decisions. And after all, the arrival of new animals into the Center depends on them, which is vital for ensuring genetic diversity of the created wild grouping. Another threat to the program is the possible expansion of ski resorts from the area of Krasnaya Polyana to the territory of Caucasus Nature Reserve and Sochi Wildlife Sanctuary. This is very serious, and can destroy the whole idea of creating a «second core» for the entire Caucasus, cutting off the only way for the leopards to resettle east along the Main Caucasian Range.
I was born and raised in Moscow, visited almost 100 countries, but it was the Caucasus that became my second home. There I always feel very well, I love and know these places well, so our project for leopard recovery is not only my job, but also my personal interest. And any threat to it, including the threat of economic development of the reserve, for me is like destroying my home. I expect that we will be able to prevent the destruction of a unique natural complexes and the future of Central Asian leopards for the sake of dubious «rolling down the hill».