SOCHI, Russia – Three Persian leopards dashed back and forth along the far side of the enclosure, emitting low, forbidding growls. Suddenly, one charged at a Russian cameraman with a roar and a crash, 180 pounds of sleek muscle colliding with an increasingly flimsy-looking chain-link fence.
At the Persian Leopard Breeding and Rehabilitation Center in the foothills above Sochi, scientists funded by the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry plan to begin reintroducing the cats to their native Caucasus Mountains this month. These scientists work under the patronage of President Vladimir Putin, who styles himself as a defender of rare animals — especially large, picturesque, lethal ones. Before the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Putin visited the center with journalists and was photographed petting a leopard as if it were a house cat. With his endorsement, a leopard was voted one of the official mascots of the games.
The leopards became a symbol of Russia’s supposed commitment to mitigating the environmental harm caused by the Olympics, which saw wide-scale destruction of the surrounding habitat: The protected Imeretinskaya Lowland, a marshy area populated by endangered bird species, was filled in with gravel to build stadiums, and the Mzymta River was so polluted that endangered salmon stopped spawning there. As compensation for environmental damage, the organizing committee promised to place a section of the upper Mzymta River valley, a key part of the leopards’ future habitat, under UNESCO protection, among other measures.
“We will say that our Olympics in Sochi is connected, among other things, with the restoration of this lost piece of nature,” Putin said of the leopard program in 2014.
But even as Russia promotes the Persian leopard as a poster child for post-Olympic environmental recovery, it is undermining the species’s reintroduction to the wild: The Mzymta River habitat has yet to be placed under UNESCO protection, and a string of state decrees has paved the way for the Rosa Khutor ski resort — owned by the richest man in Russia— to expand into the valley. Far from being reversed, the Olympic environmental destruction is continuing. Much as in the lead-up to the games— which cost a record $51 billion amid widespread allegations of corruption— commercial interests appear to be winning out over environmental concerns.
“We made a promise. They gave us the Olympics, we said thank you, [and] now we are not going to keep the promise. That’s the situation now,” said Igor Chestin, the Russia director for the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), during a recent visit to the leopard center.
“If they build all this, the program for restoring the leopards will be meaningless,” said Mikhail Kreindlin, the director of Greenpeace Russia’s protected areas program.
The largest leopard species in the world, the Persian leopard can grow to more than 200 pounds, with a paw print the size of a human hand. A fearsome predator, it hunts deer, wild pig, hare, and other small mammals, typically breaking the neck of its prey with a snap of its jaws. It once roamed widely in the Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian seas, as well as in Iran, Turkey, and Central Asia. It even appears in Mtsyri, or The Novice, a famous poem written in 1839 about the Caucasus by Russian romantic writer Mikhail Lermontov, in which the eponymous hero battles for his life during a nighttime run-in with a leopard.
We will say that our Olympics in Sochi is connected, among other things, with the restoration of this lost piece of nature.”
But by the late 19th century, the species was under attack. Wolves, lynx, and leopards were poisoned so there would be more boars and other game for the tsar. Farmers and poachers were allowed to hunt the big cat, and it was extinct in the Russian Caucasus by 1920. Elsewhere in the world, Persian leopards remain endangered due to habitat loss and poaching, with just 871 to 1,290 mature leopards left, mostly in Iran, according to the latest estimate by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Biologist Anatoly Kudaktin, a WWF adviser, has been dreaming of restoring the Persian leopard in Russia since shortly after he began working at the Caucasus State Biosphere Reserve in 1971. Since then, he’s spotted Persian leopards only four times — and each time, the cats have entered Russia coming north, most likely from Iran. When Chestin, the WWF director, arrived in Sochi to study brown bears as a graduate student under Kudaktin in 1983, the pair would go on weeklong excursions into the reserve, where they would talk about the prospects of seeing leopards in the Caucasus again.
“We’ve discussed this idea ever since then and now are able to start realizing it 33 years later,” Kudaktin said. “Like Moses was in the wilderness . . . we’ve waited 33 years.”
In 2006, the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry backed a leopard reintroduction program developed by experts from the WWF and Russian Academy of Sciences, and organizers of the Sochi Winter Games included it in their environmental program in 2008 — a rare positive story amid criticism of high-impact Olympic construction that saw tunnels, roads, and ski resorts cut into the pristine mountains. In 2009 and 2010, the Sochi center began breeding its first Persian leopards for reintroduction into the wild, after Putin solicited a pair from the president of Turkmenistan.
Located near the end of a dirt road in the foothills above Sochi, the center can only be reached by large vehicles able to handle the jarring potholes and switchbacks. This is by design: The leopards slated for release need to be kept in isolation so they preserve their fear of humans. (The leopard Putin petted was not intended for release.) During a visit in mid-May, wardens in tan shirts and baseball caps watched leopards lounge in the mid-day sun through dozens of security cameras. At night, they release game into the leopards’ 15-acre pens so they can learn to hunt.
This month, the center will release two of the eight leopards born in captivity: Fisht and Killy. (The latter is named after Putin’s friend Jean-Claude Killy, a former International Olympic Committee supervisor.) But besides a fear of humans and hunting skills, the leopards will need space upon their release: Male leopards often travel widely seeking a mate and can claim territories as large as 40 square miles. Moreover, the fledgling leopard population in Russia will need to make contact with populations in other parts of the Caucasus if it’s to grow. That’s where the upper Mzymta River valley comes in: According to Kudaktin’s studies of leopards roaming north occasionally from Iran, the valley lies along leopards’ preferred migration route between Russia and these populations. It’s also an important habitat for the leopard’s primary prey, the West Caucasian tur.
Much of the upper Mzymta River valley lies within the Sochi State Wildlife Sanctuary, a strip of protected land surrounded on three sides by the Caucasus State Biosphere Reserve. (The Caucasus reserve forms the bulk of the Western Caucasus UNESCO World Heritage site.) To the west lies the town of Krasnaya Polyana and its Olympic ski resorts.
In 2012, Russia promised the International Olympic Committee that it would add the Sochi sanctuary and other areas to the neighboring Western Caucasus World Heritage site as part of its compensation for Olympic damage, which would provide more protections for their pristine nature and noted biodiversity.
In the years since, however, this pledge has been quietly walked back while a string of government documents has paved the way for ski resort construction in the area. Most notably, the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry changed the regulations of the Sochi sanctuary last October to allow tourism-related construction there.
When asked how resort construction could be allowed in a protected area promised for inclusion in a UNESCO site, the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry told Greenpeace in an October 2015 letter that the government was in its rights to change the regulations and that Russia’s proposal to UNESCO about this new inclusion “will be corrected,” suggesting the sanctuary won’t receive this status.
The Russian Supreme Court later rejected a Greenpeace lawsuit against the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry over these changes. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, who coordinated Olympic preparations, also reportedly issued a decree in December ordering that the Caucasus State Biosphere Reserve give up its usage rights for land in the Sochi sanctuary that was planned for ski resort construction. (The Russian Geographical Society and other organizations have spoken out against this decree.)
The regulatory changes have coincided with plans for an expansion into the valley by the nearby Rosa Khutor ski resort, which hosted the downhill skiing and snowboarding events for the Olympic Games. The resort is owned by Vladimir Potanin, whom Forbesdeclared Russia’s richest man in 2015 with a fortune of $15.4 billion. Three other Russian billionaires — Oleg Deripaska, Roman Abramovich, and Alexander Abramov — will reportedly soon have a stake in the resort as well. Potanin provided $500,000 from 2005 to 2010 to help start the leopard-breeding program, but, since then, his interests appear to have diverged from those of the big cat.
Putin backed Potanin’s idea to expand Rosa Khutor at a meeting between the two men in March 2015, according to the Kremlin’s website. Then, in October, the resort’s director said at an International Ski Federation meeting that Rosa Khutor plans to double in size by building around the upper Mzymta. According to a map Greenpeace claims it obtained from a June 2015 closed meeting between resort operators and the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry, Rosa Khutor and its sister company, Ober Khutor, plan to build two resorts in the valley that would occupy territory not only in the Sochi sanctuary, but also in the UNESCO-protected Caucasus reserve.
The Rosa Khutor expansion, by some accounts, has already started: A “citizens’ inspection” by activists from the group Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC) in May 2015 revealed what it says is an illegal road going from Rosa Khutor through virgin territory toward the site of one of the planned resorts. The resort expansion threatens not only the leopard program, but also Sochi’s drinking water, which comes mainly from the Mzymta River, according to EWNC. The map obtained by Greenpeace also indicates that state gas giant Gazprom, which owns the Laura ski resort in Krasnaya Polyana, plans to build its own two resorts in the Caucasus reserve. Rosa Khutor and Gazprom did not reply to requests for comment.
When Natural Resources Minister Sergei Donskoi visited the leopard center in May to discuss the upcoming release, he denied any building had taken place, saying “a decision about developing construction in the Sochi State Wildlife Sanctuary hasn’t been made yet.”
So where is Putin when his beloved leopards are under threat? For now, he seems to be avoiding the issue, which would pit Russia’s environmental reputation — and Putin’s image as a big-cat lover — against the interests of an oligarch who helped build the Sochi Olympics and who is one of the country’s most influential men. According to Chestin, who was at the opening of the leopard center with Putin and has met him on several occasions, “there is no final decision from the Kremlin” about the resort construction. Putin may be forced to take sides if the UNESCO World Heritage Committee discusses the Western Caucasus site at its yearly session in July. But Russia could also withdraw its proposal to expand the site or ask to postpone discussion until next year’s session.
Leopard center director Umar Semyonov was reluctant to speak out against the planned resorts, noting that Olympic-related construction had boosted support for the reintroduction program. “Human development is like a giant boulder crashing down on a pristine field. We can hold our hands up and try to stop it and be crushed, or we can let it fall, then fence it off . . . and then man and animal can live together,” he said.
But Kudaktin fears the leopard will never flourish if the mountains continue to be carved up for resorts. He recalled two traveling Persian leopards he has been observing in the Sochi mountains since 2008: Every other July, the male comes to Mount Achishkho and issues a nighttime mating call. And every time, the female answers from Mount Aibga. But the Olympic highway, and the railway connecting Sochi to Rosa Khutor and the other resorts, with its high plastic walls, keeps them apart.
“I’ll be waiting for them from July 12 to 25; they’re always there then,” Kudaktin said, add that their romance will most likely remain impossible. “The isolating barrier is big and artificial,” he explained. “It’s likely they’ll hear each other, but extremely unlikely they’ll meet.”