Three Persian leopards have been released into the wild in Russia’s Caucasus region. This is a first step in a project aiming to reestablish the population of this species in the region where leopards were once common but were driven to near-extinction by the 1950s due largely to hunting.
The WWF estimates that there are currently less than 1000 Persian leopards left in the wild, with most found in Iran. The project to bring back the Persian leopard to its natural habitat in the Caucasus mountains is a collaboration between the WWF and Russia . A special leopard-breeding centre was set up in Sochi National Park in 2009, where 14 leopard kittens have been born since its opening. The three leopards – called Akhuna, Viktoria and Killi – that have just been released into the Caucasus Biosphere Reserve come from the Sochi centre.
The animals were put through special training for independent survival in the wild, including a number of tests to ensure they could hunt and understand the danger posed by humans. A fourth leopard, called Sinbad, has been left at the breeding centre for now, because the tests demonstrated that he lacks the instinctive fear of humans. This is most likely because two-year-old Sinbad was brought to Sochi from a French zoo.
According to Igor Chestin, the director of WWF Russia, the goal of the project is to have 50 leopard specimens of breeding age out in the wild in the Caucasus, to ensure that the population is capable of sustaining itself. The first three predators will be tracked by zoologists via GPS devices in their collars, hidden cameras were placed around the area that is their new habitat, and there will be a mobile response team of specialists is on hand to help the leopards in distress. People living in the region were warned that poaching is a criminal offence. The population of prey animals such as deer and wild boars was increased in the Caucasus mountains over the last decade to ensure the reserve is ready for the reintroduction of the leopards, although plans to expand the Olympic ski resorts in the region could impact their survival.