Russia is trying to reintroduce Persian leopard species

Russia is trying to reintroduce Persian leopard species ... 29/05/2016 Nature

Keywords:#Caucasian, #Caucasus,, #Europe, #Iran, #Olympics, #Persian, #Persian_Leopard, #Persian_leopard, #President, #Russia, #Russian, #Turkmenistan, #UNESCO, #Vladimir_Putin, #WWF, #World_Heritage, #World_Heritage_Site

Leopard lived in Caucasus region before Sochi’s discovery in 1800s
SOCHI: The Russian resort of Sochi is best known for hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics. But now it’s about to welcome a different kind of visitor - one that can break a goat’s neck with a twist of its jaws.
The endangered Persian leopard is being reintroduced to the region after almost a century. But vital migration routes the animal needs to thrive are under threat from expanding ski resorts.
Conservationists will release two three-year-old animals within the next few weeks, followed by another pair later this year. Officials hope a leopard colony will again take root in the south eastern corner of Europe and spread eastward.
“I had the idea first in 1983,” Head of Russia World Wide Fund (WWF) Igor Chestin said. “Now it’s finally coming to fruition.”
The Persian leopard - also known as the Caucasian leopard - had lived in the Caucasus region long before the city of Sochi was founded in the 1800s.
Russian princes turned part the nearby mountainside into private grounds to hunt the big cats. But it was not royal sport that saw the region’s leopards wiped out by the 1920s; a campaign to eradicate the unpopular wolf using traps and poisoned meat indiscriminately killed all predators.
Today, there are fewer than 400 Persian leopards in the wild, with the only sustainable wild populations in Iran and Turkmenistan.
The Persian Leopard Breeding and Rehabilitation Centre in Sochi plans to change all that.
No longer a royal hunting ground, the area around the city now falls under the Caucasus Biosphere Reserve, a 1,100-square-mile “biodiversity hotspot” that includes more than 100 unique species of mammals and birds.
The wider Western Caucasus region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and “one of the few large mountain areas of Europe that has not experienced significant human impact.”
The leopard breeding centre opened in a remote corner of these mountains in 2007 and now has 13 leopards in its 30-acre grounds. Four were born in the centre while others came from the wild or zoos across Europe.
The project is bankrolled by the Russian government. Russian President Vladimir Putin - known for his fondness of big, dangerous animals - posed for the cameras in 2014 hugging a six-month-old cub at the centre.
Two of its feline denizens are slated for release in mid-June, the height of the fawning season that would provide them with enough prey. Two more are to follow later this year.
The cats are carefully groomed for release. They feed on live prey in their enclosures and visitors are forbidden from approaching, least the animals get used to two-legged creatures.
“Victoria (the leopard) passed the final exam just days ago," centre expert Umar Semyonov said. “She brought down an adult deer that we sent in, and then I entered its enclosure at night, and she fled.”
This shyness is no rarity: There’s no record of an unprovoked attack by a Persian leopard on a human in Russia. In any case, the region teems with deer, wildfowl and the goat-like ibex and chamois.
According to professor Anatoly Kudaktin - a veteran researcher who worked at the Caucasus Biosphere Reserve for 46 years - the leopards have a much better chance if they restore the ancient migration routes to Iran and Turkmenistan.This would allow them to meet up with their fellow big cats and strengthen the gene pool.
“A leopard can hike from here to Iran in a couple years,” Kudaktin said. “It would strengthen the gene pool.”
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