AboutZoos, Since 2008


Per­sian leop­ards set to make roar­ing come­back in Russia’s West­ern Caucasus

pub­lished 06 August 2016 | mod­i­fied 06 August 2016

Persian leopardResearchers released three Per­sian leop­ards into the Russ­ian wilder­ness today in the first-​ever attempt to rein­tro­duce the species into the wild. The ani­mals are expected to become the founders of a new pop­u­la­tion of Per­sian leop­ards in Rus­sia as part of an ambi­tious pro­gramme to bring the ani­mal back to a region it once roamed in abun­dance.

Map of Russia with Caucasus insetThe release of the leop­ards in the Cau­ca­sus (Kavkazsky) Bios­phere Reserve marks an impor­tant moment in the effort by WWF-​Russia and its part­ners to rein­tro­duce the Per­sian leop­ard in the area. The species was once com­mon across almost all moun­tain areas in the Cau­ca­sus region, but pop­u­la­tions declined dras­ti­cally in the 1950s due to human activ­i­ties such as hunt­ing. There are cur­rently less than 1,000 Per­sian leop­ards left in the wild, with the major­ity being found in Iran. The Per­sian leop­ard (Pan­thera par­dus saxi­color) is one of the nine sub­species of leop­ards recog­nised accord­ing to genetic analy­sis as doc­u­mented by the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species.

Western Caucasus KavkazskyThe West­ern Cau­ca­sus, extend­ing over 275,000 ha of the extreme west­ern end of the Cau­ca­sus moun­tains and located 50 km north-​east of the Black Sea, includes the Kavkazsky Bios­phere Reserve, and is one of the few large moun­tain areas of Europe that has not expe­ri­enced sig­nif­i­cant human impact. Its sub­alpine and alpine pas­tures have only been grazed by wild ani­mals, and its exten­sive tracts of undis­turbed moun­tain forests, extend­ing from the low­lands to the sub­alpine zone, are unique in Europe. The site has a great diver­sity of ecosys­tems, with impor­tant endemic plants and wildlife, and is the place of ori­gin and rein­tro­duc­tion of the moun­tain sub­species of the Euro­pean bison.
Credit: West­ern Cau­ca­sus — UNESCO World Her­itage Cen­tre

The release of these Per­sian leop­ards into the wild is an impor­tant mile­stone in our efforts to re-​establish the pop­u­la­tion, but this is only the beginning
Igor Chestin, CEO of WWF-​Russia »

As the three leop­ards take their first steps into the wild, they are forg­ing a future where the Per­sian leop­ard can thrive once again in the West­ern Cau­ca­sus,” Chestin said.

Breed­ing cen­tre in Sochi National Park
The three young leop­ards released — named Vic­to­ria, Akhun and Killi — were all born in a breed­ing cen­tre in Sochi National Park that was built with the sup­port of the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment for the rein­tro­duc­tion pro­gramme. Already, 14 leop­ard cubs have been born in the cen­tre since its open­ing in 2009.

Per­sian leop­ard mother and cub

(Source: World Wildlife Fund YouTube channel)

Under the pro­gramme, each of the leop­ards born in the cen­tre under­goes spe­cial train­ing for inde­pen­dent sur­vival in the wild. Researchers are hop­ing to cre­ate a pop­u­la­tion of 50 adult Per­sian leop­ards in the region as part of a sta­ble group that can repro­duce on its own.

A series of spe­cial mea­sures have been taken to pre­pare the nature reserve for the rein­tro­duc­tion of the leop­ards. Prey ani­mals such as deer and wild boars have been steadily increased and local com­mu­ni­ties have been pro­vided with guide­lines to be observed in areas where leop­ards will live.

New threat
Steps have also been taken to strengthen pro­tec­tion in and around the ter­ri­tory but a new amend­ment that allows the con­struc­tion of large-​scale infra­struc­ture in nature reserves threat­ens to weaken these mea­sures. Plans to expand two Olympic ski resorts in the region could impact the sur­vival of the newly-​reintroduced Per­sian leop­ards and other species liv­ing in the area.

The West­ern Cau­ca­sus is not only crit­i­cal habi­tat to the Per­sian leop­ard, it is one of the most bio­log­i­cally diverse areas in the coun­try. Rus­sia must uphold the com­mit­ments it made dur­ing its 2014 Sochi Olympics bid and ensure that pro­tec­tions in the UNESCO World Her­itage site are not weak­ened for busi­nesses and recre­ational inter­ests.

“Pro­tect­ing and main­tain­ing this vibrant land­scape is key to the suc­cess of the Per­sian leop­ard rein­tro­duc­tion pro­gramme,” added Chestin.

Fol­low­ing the release today, satel­lite col­lars on each of the leop­ards will pro­vide infor­ma­tion on their where­abouts as they adapt to life in the wild. Twenty-​four cam­era traps have also been installed in the reserve along with a mobile response unit placed on stand-​by to locate and reach an ani­mal in distress.

Sup­port for the Per­sian leop­ard in the West­ern Cau­ca­sus
The pro­gramme for the rein­tro­duc­tion of the Per­sian leop­ard in the West­ern Cau­ca­sus is imple­mented by the Min­istry of Nat­ural Resources and Envi­ron­ment of the Russ­ian Fed­er­a­tion with the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the Sochi National Park, Cau­ca­sus (Kavkazsky) State Nature Bios­phere Reserve, A.N. Sev­ertsov Insti­tute of Ecol­ogy and Evo­lu­tion, Moscow Zoo and WWF-​Russia, with sup­port from the Inter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Nature (IUCN) and Euro­pean Asso­ci­a­tion of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA).

(Source: WWF Global news release, 15.07.2016; UNESCO World Her­itage List)

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