Sochi, RussiaOne by one, the three leopards emerged from their cages and moved lithely down the hill, away from the cameras and to the safety of the green canopy of the Caucasus Nature Reserve.
That moment, captured in July by Russian state TV, would be the last time they see humans—or so scientists hope.
Akhun, Killy, and Victoria became the first captive-raised Persian leopards released into the wild anywhere in the world.
Russia's Center for Reintroduction of the Leopard in the Caucasus, launched in 2007 as part of Sochi National Park, aims to bring the predator back to the Caucasus Mountains. It once roamed a great territory stretching from the foothills above the Black Sea in the west down through the northern Caucasus into Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
If successful, the effort would boost the subspecies (also known as Caucasian leopard), which has lost 84 percent of its range since the 18th century, according to a recent study in the journal PeerJ.
The study found that 87 percent of wild Persian leopards now live in Iran, though sightings in the Caucasus possibly suggest some small, fragmented populations. (Related: "For Leopards in Iran and Iraq, Land Mines Are a Surprising Refuge.")
“The idea was that there will be one large core population in Iran and a second in the Russian Caucasus that would support the small groupings and thus the species itself,” says Igor Chestin, head of WWF-Russia, a project partner.
So far, the program has bred 14 animals at the captive-breeding center in Sochi, and plans to release a total of 50 in the next years, all of them equipped with satellite collars to track their whereabouts.
However, this ambitious plan to produce a genetically viable population from scratch isn't simple—and it's complicated by possible expansion of ski resorts around the 2014 Olympic town of Sochi, conservationists say.
The Making of a Predator
The leopard’s demise in the Caucasus began after Russia conquered the area in the second half of the 19th century and turned it into royal hunting grounds.
Imperial authorities proclaimed the leopards pestilent and awarded generously for their skins. The extermination campaign by guns and prey spiked with strychnine—a type of poison—continued into the Soviet period, until the leopard was labeled an endangered species in the 1950s by the Soviet government. The species is now listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
By then leopard numbers were too few for the population to recover on its own, and scientists decided to launch the breeding program with four leopards caught in the wild in Iran and Turkmenistan, whose progeny would then replenish the Caucasus population. (Also see pictures of Persian leopards in Afghanistan.)
The three animals released in July were the first born in the center, in 2013.
“My motto for this work is artificial stimulation of natural instincts,” says Umar Semenov, head of the Sochi reintroduction center, a 29-acre (12-hectare) facility that includes a breeding area and six enclosures with trees, ponds, burrows, and artificial cliffs. Here, Semenov and colleagues prepare animals for release via a training program that hones their hunting prowess and allows no human contact.
“We stimulate animals by this environment, we create situations, provoking their intellect, their decision-making," he says, sitting in front of several displays showing feeds from the center’s 119 cameras.
“We need them to be able to kill various prey in different conditions,” he adds, showing a video of one leopard pursuing a raccoon up a tree for the kill. Other prey released into the enclosures include deer, badgers, wild boars, and river rats. Employees track each hunt, noting the leopards’ focus and skill.
So Far, So Good
The program has had its rough patches, though: In early stages, Semenov and colleagues had trouble getting the animals to breed.
In the past, scientists had only reintroduced leopards that had been caught in the wild, making the Sochi program one of a kind, says Mohammad Farhadinia, a co-author of the PeerJ study and a Ph.D. student at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit of the University of Oxford.
Now "the Russians must be patient" to see how the captive-raised animals adjust, he says.
So far, the three newly freed leopards seem healthy and are hunting prey, says Anatoly Kudaktin, a research scientist with the reserve who observes their movements via satellite collars.
“This makes us happy, and is as was expected,” Kudaktin says. (See more pictures of big cats.)
The odds should be in their favor: "The breeding core of Sochi has been [genetically] shaped with the right individuals, both from captive ones and wild-caught ones to represent the subspecies properly," Farhadinia says.
Persian leopards are less genetically diverse across West and Central Asia, he adds.
Now that they've raised and introduced leopards, Semenov hopes the government will establish a protected corridor along the entire Russian Caucasus, carefully spacing out siblings to prevent inbreeding.
First, though, the predators must thrive in the Caucasus Nature Reserve, which stretches from Sochi across the mountains for over 690,000 acres (279,000 hectares) and forms the bulk of Russia's Western Caucasus UNESCO World Heritage site.
Kudaktin is worried that ski resorts created ahead of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games will expand into neighboring refuges.
Although some of the Olympics's development budget went to funding the reintroduction center, the Games's resulting buildup has already encroached on preferred migration territories of both leopards and their prey animals, with a new road along the Mzymta River cutting a major dividing range into two, Kudaktin says. (See "Leopards Have Lost Three-Fourths of Their Territory.")
Regulation changes last year allowed for construction of tourism facilities in the Sochi Refuge, a sliver of protected area higher up the Mzymta, which is surrounded by the Caucasus Nature Reserve on three sides. The government had planned to combine the two reserves as compensation for Olympic development, and applied to UNESCO to protect the newly added area.
However, following the regulation changes, in May, Russia pulled its UNESCO bid. The UN group reacted by saying that the amendments "can have particularly serious negative impacts on the reintroduction of the Persian leopard."
Russian Greenpeace contested the changes in the Supreme Court, but the court ruled in July that tourism infrastructure inside the refuge is legal.
If the area is further developed, “the population will be fragmented, which will inhibit genetic exchange” between leopards in the Caucasus Nature Reserve and those in Iran, says Kudaktin, who coordinates the scientific team tracking the cats.
WWF's Chestin says resort development in the upper Mzymta would reduce the program from its international scale to a local effort that would allow at most 30 to 40 animals isolated inside the Caucasus Nature Reserve.
Even the reserve itself could be in danger after an amendment to the law on Russia's protected territories was unexpectedly piggybacked through Parliament in June on an unrelated bill, allowing construction of tourism facilities in Russia’s strictly protected reserves.
Chestin and other environmentalists believe the legislative changes were lobbied by the ski resorts in Sochi.
“This is classic corruption,” he says of the seeming contradiction between the government's efforts to support the leopard while simultaneously weakening protection of its habitat.
Russia's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment did not respond to a request for comment.
Interros, which owns the Rosa Khutor resort, said in a comment emailed by its press service that there is no intention to build inside the Caucasus Reserve.
The Russian company, which had been an early sponsor of the leopard project, does have plans to upgrade the Sochi facilities with four new ski lifts and 12 miles (20 kilometers) of slopes, but they declined to provide a map of planned construction.
Gazprom, another company with a ski resort in Sochi, did not answer a request for comment.
Chestin says he still hopes that President Vladimir Putin, a known aficionado of big cats, will step in to ensure the leopard’s habitat stays undeveloped.
“He hasn’t said the word yet, so there’s still a chance,” he says.
Staking New Territory
Back at the breeding center in Sochi, Umar Semenov watches an exhausted female leopard lying in the grass as her three kittens, born in June, romp about, refusing to settle down for the night.
"It would be ideal if they start reproducing in the wild," he says when asked where he sees the program in five years.
"Then we could say the program is truly a success."
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