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Putin's Leopards
The Olympics love a good comeback story, and the Russian president's pet project to save an adorable endangered species is ready for prime time. Just don’t believe it.

The first thing that Vladimir Putin did after arriving in Sochi on Tuesday for the 2014 Winter Olympics was to catch up with some dear friends. With the international press in tow, the Russian president dropped by the Persian Leopard Breeding and Rehabilitation Center that his government opened here in 2009 and treated the assembled media to an irresistible photo op. Entering a cage, Putin patted its ferocious-looking inhabitant on the head like a cuddly housecat. (In a turn of events that must have privately pleased the president to no end, the big cat later scratched at one journalist and bit another on the knee.)

Putin with snow leopard in Sochi“We’ve decided to restore the population of the Persian leopard because of the Olympic Games,” Putin told reporters. “Let’s say that because of the Olympic Games, we have restored parts of the destroyed nature.”

It’s a good story, perfectly packaged for a sports media that loves improbable comeback tales—especially during the Olympics. But as the run-up to Friday’s opening ceremonies has demonstrated, reality is more or less an afterthought here in this resort town on the western edge of the Caucasus Mountains.

The games are meant to be a showpiece for Putin's “new” Russia (New York Times Moscow correspondent and Putin biographer Steven Lee Myers vividly described them as “Putin’s Olympic Fever Dream”), and his government has spent at least $50 billion, and by some estimates much more, to make them so—nevermind the security and terrorism concerns, accusations of corruption and waste, oppression of gay people and government critics, unfinished infrastructure and spotty power grid, or the fact that Sochi is actually subtropical, with daily high temperatures averaging 52 degrees at this time of year.

On the environmental front, these games—touted by Russian organizers as “zero waste,” following green building standards and sustainability goals meant to make them “in harmony with nature”—are getting pounded by critics who say the construction of Olympic facilities has been devastating for everything from wildlife habitat to the local drinking water. Some of those homegrown critics have faced backlash and political pressure, enough to force some to flee the country.

Even the choice of an official mascot hasn’t been without controversy. Every Olympics since 1968 has had one—usually a cuddly, anthropomorphized critter with vague roots in the host city: a dachshund at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, scarf-wearing polar bears for the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. Vancouver in 2010 went with the mythical Sasquatch.

Sochi's leopard mascot

Sochi’s symbol is an impish, fresh-faced adolescent snow leopard proudly clutching a snowboard, which seems like a safe choice—certainly better than London’s creepy giant eyeballs—until you consider that snow leopards roam nowhere near Sochi, which is on the Black Sea in southeastern Russia. The ones that do call the country home live more than 3,000 miles away in Siberia, and they’re endangered by poaching. There were even accusations of vote rigging after Putin named the cartoon leopard—one of several mascots the Russian public voted on via phone and text—as his “symbolic” favorite, and it surged from far behind to beat the other choices at the last minute.

Yet big cats mean a lot to Putin, who styles himself the savior of their species. And the feline mascot does have real-life cousins living nearby, in the rehabilitation center that Putin visited Tuesday. They’re not technically snow leopards, but Persian leopards, a separate species. Two sets of twins were born at the center last year. And yes, in case you’re wondering, these cubs are as cute as the dickens: tiny, freckle-faced, and inclined to bite playfully at their mamas’ tails as they gambol about on their furry little paws—making them highly telegenic symbols of Russia’s declared commitment to wildlife conservation.

Whether that commitment has any basis in reality is the question I tried to answer eight months ago, when I visited Sochi to report on the center’s leopard restoration efforts. I was in the resort town on the Black Sea, being stymied by typical bureaucratic red tape, when the second set of cubs was born. The $3 million leopard breeding center—mostly funded by the government, though a cell phone giant and ski resort helped—isn’t open to the public, and what exactly goes on behind its gates is something of a mystery. Soon after I arrived in Russia, I met the center’s director, Umar Semenov, at a seaside cafe and asked what seemed like a basic, not especially provocative question: were any of the leopards pregnant? Semenov shifted in his seat, seemingly ill at ease, then gazed off toward the vacationers cavorting in the surf far below us.

“Well,” he said, “we have been collecting their progesterone, and it seems that they are getting ready to be pregnant. Or maybe they already are pregnant.” Wait, either they’re pregnant or they’re not, right? “Well,” he said, “they are making themselves comfortable.” I wouldn’t get a straight answer until days later, after the cubs were already born.

Though the Persian leopard is closely related to the snow leopard, it’s distinguished by its larger size, longer tail, and a coat that is smokier in tone. (They’re easy enough to mistake for one another that many of the news outlets reporting on Tuesday’s photo-op conflated the two.) Also like the snow leopard, the Persian leopard is endangered throughout its current—and greatly truncated—natural habitat, which generally ranges from western Pakistan to eastern Turkey, but once included parts of Georgia and Russia, including the mountainous terrain surrounding Sochi. Scientists estimate that there are fewer than 1,300 wild Persian leopards left in the world, most of them probably inside Iran.

The four Sochi cubs represent the first Persian leopards to be born in Russia in half a century, according to the World WildlifeFund. Their keepers—biologists for Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment—plan to release three of the four cubs into a 360-square mile protected zone within the Caucasus State Biosphere in 2015. (The fourth will stay behind at the center; the scientists say it has already imprinted too deeply onto its human caretakers to survive in the wild.) Six years from now, if all goes well, the biologists hope that there will be a viable population of as many as 50 Persian leopards roaming the Caucasus.

So do Putin and his government scientists actually deserve some credit here? Is the Persian leopard success story that they’ll be touting throughout the games legit?

Putin loves leopards

It would certainly be nice. A hundred and fifty years ago, Persian leopards were common—albeit elusive—in the forests of the North Caucasus. The animals regularly entranced those mountain-dwelling villagers who spotted them, and they became valued by trophy hunters. In 1848, a Persian leopard pelt could fetch 20 silver rubles apiece—as opposed to wolf and fox pelts, which typically went for no more than a single ruble. By the 1930s, however, the overhunted leopards were so rare in Russia’s mountains that a single sighting was considered newsworthy. Today, the animal is an almost apocryphal presence in the Caucasus.

The mountains are rife with false sightings, says Semenov, the breeding center’s director. When he worked at the Teberdinsky Nature Reserve, east of the Caucasus State Biosphere, from 2000 to 2003, he told me, he investigated some 200 reports of leopard sightings. “Almost every time I interviewed people,” he said, “it sounded like they were talking about the Loch Ness monster. You’d ask, ‘Did you see it yourself?’ and then you’d hear, ‘No, actually, my friend saw it.’ Hunters spread rumors. And people’s eyes are bigger than reason.”

Another wildlife biologist, Anatoly Kudaktin, a professor at Russia’s Academy of Sciences, told me that he has been looking for Persian leopards in the wilds of southwestern Russia since 1973—and so far has spotted only two. I asked him what those two sightings over a 40-year period meant to him. “They were a dream come true,” he said. “They were proof that we could bring leopards back to the Caucasus.”

Here’s the thing: he’s right—a comeback for the Persian leopard is possible in Russia. “Bottom line,” says John Seidensticker, head of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Conservation Ecology Center, “if they have a piece of appropriate habitat and decent prey, leopards can do all right. Everybody always talks about how you need political will to reintroduce predators. Well, guess what? You’ve got political will [in Russia]. If Putin wants those leopards to flourish, it’ll happen.”

And on the surface, at least, it seems he does. It’s well-documented that Putin fancies himself a rugged outdoorsman: witness the countless photos of the Russian president hunting, often shirtless and sporting camouflage trousers, or swimming with dolphins or flying a paraglider alongside Siberian cranes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Putin claims to enjoy a close personal connection to Persian leopards and since 2007 has visibly worked to expand the no-build zone set aside for them inside the Caucasus State Biosphere. He’s a frequent visitor to the breeding center and christened two of its adult leopards after they were captured in the outback of Turkmenistan and Iran. Semenov speaks of his president (and patron) fondly. “He expresses a real interest in leopards. He wants to know the particularities of their behavior, and when he comes to visit he doesn’t seem like the president. He seems like a friend.”

Then there’s the widely seen 2009 video, made shortly after the two captured adults arrived at the center, which shows Putin sidling up to a cage, pulling a string, and opening a door that would allow one of the cats to pad into a larger and more natural-looking caged area, filled with trees and vines. But the leopard doesn’t move. She just lingers there, silently regarding her human visitor. Putin then crouches down and leans forward, placing his hands on his knees and staring straight into the eyes of the leopard until the freaked-out cat finally charges—yowling, fangs bared—and crashes into at the chain-link fence that separates the two.

Putin visits the leopards in 2009

Throughout the leopard’s lunge, Putin barely flinches. Only when the giant cat has calmed down and the whole episode is over does he speak. To the assembled reporters—in a near whisper that borders on the reverential—he says of what just transpired between the caged creature and himself: “We have found common language.”

But it’s one thing to publicly declare your love for an endangered animal and pledge to increase its numbers. If at the same time you’re wiping out that creature’s native habitat—well, what kind of love is that?

And indeed, around Sochi and elsewhere throughout the region, in his relentless drive to make Russia rich, Putin is fast destroying the unspoiled woodlands necessary for the leopard’s survival—even as he signs papers formally expanding the conserved area’s size. The whirlwind development under his watch, symbolized most recently by Sochi’s transformation from sleepy beach town into world-class winter wonderland, makes biologists not on the Russian payroll question whether suitable leopard habitat will even exist in southeastern Russia 20 years from now.

Sochi’s $50 billion extreme makeover includes carving into its surrounding mountains and virgin-pine forests to build two new highways and 17 miles of automobile tunnels. (In 2010, Russian geologist Sergei Volkov, an environmental consultant to the Sochi developers, had to flee the country after incurring the government’s wrath by speaking out against the development, which he said could cause landslides. Since then, there have been several landslides outside of Sochi—just as he predicted.)

Ten years ago the Mzymta River, which flows down from the mountains above above Sochi, was pristine; today it’s a roiling, mud-gray torrent choked by gargantuan infrastructure projects: 28 new bridges, a train station, and numerous cloverleaf on-ramps. Construction crews have dumped up to 30,000 tons of Olympics-related debris, most of it resulting from new railroad construction, at an illegal landfill nearby. The stadium-sized Iceberg Skating Palace sits atop former wetlands that were, until recently, a stop-off for migrating birds.

Debris outside Sochi

When I visited Sochi last summer, everything I saw seemed to validate the concerns of groups like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, which—like Volkov—cut their consulting ties to the Sochi games when it became clear the rapid development was inflicting “great damage” on the surrounding region. As my interpreter and I rode through town in a bus filled with construction workers, he looked out the window at the Mzymta and woefully informed me that “this used to be a beautiful river—the fishing was lovely.”

When we got out in the village of Krasnaya Polyana, near a block of ersatz Swiss chalets that will serve as condo-style housing for visiting athletes, the dust was so thick in the air that I could taste it. There I met a retired biology teacher, Constantine Analokievich, a bony and time-whittled man who told me between sips of beer on his back patio that for years he had heard large cats—cougars, most likely—at night. Analokievich threw his head back to imitate the cats’ howling. “They were only 100 meters from the house, on that hillside right there”—he pointed—“and the bears were coming, too. Now none of the animals are coming, with all the construction and noise. I don’t hear them anymore.”

NRDC: From Red to (Light) Green

NRDC's Mark Izeman

Mark Izeman
Director of NRDC’s New York Program

When you were living in Moscow from 2006 to 2009, what did you notice about the manner in which the government approaches and engages with sustainability challenges?

In the early 1990s, after Perestroika, there was a lot of activity by NGOs and the new government to address many of the well-documented environmental shortcomings of the U.S.S.R. Many people may even forget that in 2004, Russia actually signed the Kyoto Protocol—unlike the U.S.—and since then has taken some baby steps to curb climate change pollution through the international carbon trading market. But like most developing countries, Russia isn’t yet at the level of developed countries in terms of adopting or enforcing comprehensive environmental laws and policies.

How fragile is the larger ecosystem around Sochi? Do you worry that all of the development taking place there for the Olympics will compromise it even further?

My wife and I visited Sochi twice in the 1990s, when it still had the old, huge Soviet-style resorts. It's a beautiful, mountainous beach resort town that has served many generations of vacationing Russians. But there is very little information available about the environmental impact of all the Olympics-related development here. More broadly, there are important sustainability questions as to where to hold future Olympic games. We should all be concerned with their siting, as the Olympics tend to result in massive new development projects. Hopefully there will be a full evaluation after these games to help guide future Olympic siting decisions, with the ultimate goal being to avoid environmental impacts as much as possible.

Has Russia’s abrupt transformation from a controlled economy to something of a capitalist free-for-all zone made the task of protecting the country’s natural resources harder?

The Soviets did a lot of damage to the environment as the U.S.S.R. was going through major industrialization and large-scale agriculture reform. The NGOs that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union tried to bring that damage to light, and even correct some of it, and they’re still at it. It’s no secret that Putin isn’t a fan of NGOs, especially those that are funded with international money.

But one thing that has surprised me is how important nature and animals are to ordinary Russians. Indeed, the most passionate protest rally I ever attended in Moscow was one that drew attention to the environmental threats to Siberia’s Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest and oldest lake and a huge source of Russian pride. We were fortunate to visit it a few years ago with some Russian friends who make a point of taking family trips to the country’s most significant cultural and environmental landmarks—all to ensure that their kids understand the heritage they’ll need to love and protect. I’ve also been heartened by the emergence of a new local-food movement around Moscow; it’s like a window into the everyday minds of many Russians who care deeply about sustainability, but whose stories rarely get covered by the Western press.

At the time of my visit, Sochi was in frenetic upheaval. Asphalt in the city center was jet-black and glistening, so new that it was still tacky underfoot. A construction crane loomed high above almost every single block as 100,000 laborers toiled beneath the summer sun in the subtropical climate. Sochi can, at times, feel like Putin’s seaside fiefdom. It’s no secret that the nearby Rosa Khutor ski-resort complex is Putin’s preferred winter-weather playground, and he has more than one vacation residence in the vicinity, including a waterfront villa surrounded by high fences and concertina wire, and a ski chalet outfitted with a helipad and a gondola lift that can swiftly whisk the president to his own personal slopes.

Then there’s the “weather station,” a mysterious compound going up within the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s world heritage site identified as the leopard’s future habitat. When construction was approved for a new asphalt road that would cut through this highly protected nature preserve, environmentalists (not to mention UNESCO representatives) began asking questions. Russian officials were quick with a response: the compound might look like a palatial vacation home fit for a president who loves skiing and requires privacy, but it was actually a meteorological research center. Without the new road, they insisted, future meteorological researchers wouldn’t be able to get to work at their luxurious, three-story, ski-chalet-style office—replete with indoor swimming pool, massive stone fireplace, fancy light fixtures, and twin helipads.

Like many critics both inside and outside the country, David Feldman, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine and co-author of a book on Russian environmental policy, says Putin is protecting the Persian leopard’s habitat in name only. Sochi has boomed in the years since it was chosen as the site of the Winter Olympics and will continue to boom and attract throngs of tourists well after the games if Putin has his way.

“That’s one of the few regions in Russia that’s temperate enough for winter visitors,” Feldman says. “And Putin aims to make it a world-class destination. You’d like to think that you’d get eco-tourists there—people who demand more protection for animals like the leopard. But I don’t see that happening in the next 20 years. Development will continue. And what’s going to happen when the leopards come down to tip over garbage cans? Their prospects in Russia aren’t great.”

All of which makes it even sadder to see the Persian leopard cubs born in the Sochi breeding center used as adorable pawns in Putin’s PR game. When I met director Umar Semenov eight months ago and couldn’t get a straight answer about whether the leopards were pregnant, I was also surprised to be told that I would need a permit from “the ministry”—he never specified which one—to visit in person. Semenov had known about my planned visit for six months and never mentioned it before; I had been under the impression that he and the center would welcome more publicity. I spent the next few days wandering the streets of Sochi, growing more doubtful by the hour.

And then, the day before I was scheduled to fly home, I received a phone call from the ministry (I figured out its identity on my own): the application had been approved. I was told that I needed to get to the breeding center immediately; that Semenov was, in fact, already headed to pick me up in his chauffeured Land Rover. When I climbed in, he was obviously happy.

“I’m celebrating!” he said. “I’ve just become a father.” Of two new Persian leopard cubs, he meant. They were, in fact, the second pair of cubs to be born at the center; the first had arrived two months earlier. “We didn’t tell you about it,” Semenov said, “because we wanted to tell the president first. He’s like a godfather to them.”

The preserve, when we finally got there after blowing a tire, was quiet. The leopards were gathered in their lair at the bottom of a hill. As it happened—for all of my work and waiting and wondering—I still wouldn’t be seeing any of them in person. The closest I got was joining Semenov in his office, seated before five different TV monitors, each one displaying a different patch of the leopards’ habitat.

We sat there and watched the mostly static images until one of the adult cats—Zadig, the father of two of the cubs—lazily lumbered away from the lair. He was spotted and sheeny, his musculature at once massive and elegantly liquid. He leapt onto a high concrete platform and gave a yawn before stretching out and lying on his back, luxuriating. He and his progeny will look good on TV, I thought; they’ll make a great comeback story, the kind Olympic broadcasters excel at telling. Too bad a story is probably all it will ever be.

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image of Bill Donahue
Bill Donahue is a journalist living in Portland, Oregon, whose writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Wired, The Washington Post Magazine and many other publications. His work has twice been nominated for a National Magazine Award and has also been reprinted in "The Best American Sports Writing," "The Best American Travel Writing," and other anthologies. MORE STORIES ➔
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