Russia’s President Putin has indicated to the world that he is an enthusiastic supporter of wildlife conservation. The president visited a leopard breeding centre before the Sochi Winter Olympics. Persian leopards are being reintroduced into the Caucasian state nature biosphere, close to Sochi. Cubs are being bred to be released into this wildlife reserve. Three have been released already and they are apparently faring well. They are being tracked by satellite-linked collars and camera traps and have killed deer and wild boar for food. More cubs are being bred and reared for release. President Putin particularly likes this programme of conservation.
The Persian leopard is a rare large wild cat species with a population of no more than 1000. Its range stretches from Iran to Turkmenistan. There is hope that a new group of leopards can be nurtured in the West Caucasus and that they link up with other leopards to the East reducing the fragmentation of their distribution in this region.
The conservation plans are going well it seems but as usual they are being jeopardised by big business. We know that Putin is interested in big business and, I for one, believe that he has his finger in many pies boosting his personal fortune which is vast but undisclosed.
There are two ski resorts near the nature reserve. One is a Gazprom complex and the other is Mr Potanin’s Rosa Khutor resort. Mr Potanin is a “Kremlin-friendly oligach” and is probably on very good terms with Putin. Rosa Khutor has part funded the leopard breeding facility.
They both want to expand into the wildlife reserve. Russian law allows them to do this. A law passed by Russia’s parliament last year allows tourism development inside wildlife reserves in designated areas called “poligons”.
The head of WWF Russia, Mr Chestin, says that plans to enlarge these two ski resorts into the territory of the reserve could have a devastating effect of the conservation programme because it is likely to cut off the distribution pathway of the leopards coming from the East.
This is countered by Rosa Khutor. A statement from this business said that its planned expansion is into the neighbouring Sochi National Park and Sochi refuge but not the reserve itself. They say that the resort that they plan will not be situated on the migration paths of the leopards and therefore can in no way obstruct the resettling of leopards in the wild.
Neither of these businesses would provide a map of their plans. Mr Putin remained silent. He has the authority to prevent the plans going ahead by speaking out. Mr Chestin hopes that he does.
Mr Putin’s spokesman has not responded to a request for comment from the Times newspaper of Saturday, July 22, 2017 which is the basis of this article.
This is a moment when Putin can stop using impressive wild animals such as large cats for public relations and walk the walk by prioritising conservation over financial profit for his cronies and himself. How will he respond?