Morad Tahbaz's dream might finally be coming true. Or not. It all seems to hinge on the plans of a Russian billionaire. Either way, the dream got one step closer to reality this past week with the release of three captive-bred Persian leopards into the Caucasus Biosphere Reserve in southern Russia.
Tahbaz is director of the US-based Persian Wildlife Foundation, a non-profit conservation group working to protect Iran's dwindling wildlife. He spent much of his childhood in Iran and shared his dreams for the endangered Persian leopard with Earth Touch News two years ago. The country remains a stronghold for a predator that once roamed throughout the Caucasus Mountains of central Asia, spanning multiple countries, including southern Russia. But by the late 20th century, decades of poaching, poisoning and habitat loss had left only small scattered pockets of leopards in most of those countries, and essentially none in Russia. Even in Iran, only a few hundred of the big cats remain today. Unless these Iranian populations can connect with other leopards in the Caucasus, this unique animal – the largest leopard in the world – could easily go extinct.
On the other side of the mountains, Russian biologist Igor Chestin of WWF-Russia realised this too. "I first thought of [reintroduction] in 1983 when I came to the area as a student studying brown bears," says Chestin now. "That year, the rangers in the reserve saw a female leopard with two cubs, which was a very rare sighting. I thought it would be really great to bring leopards back to the area."
Protected by the Caucasus Biosphere Reserve and Sochi (or Sochinsky) National Park, the region held the last remaining space for such a big cat. But the few leopards that ventured there, never stayed. "Some years you do see young males come into the area from the east. But they don't find any females," says Chestin. "So they return to where they came from or die."
The habitat remained pristine until development for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games at Sochi began. According to international news reports, development for the Games destroyed prime wildlife habitat such as the Imeretinskaya Lowland, an important wetland for endangered bird species. It polluted water supplies and salmon runs in the once-wild Mzymta River, which rushes out of the high mountains. And it also planted a ski resort right in the middle of prime Persian leopard habitat in the Mzymta Valley.
To compensate, Russian conservation agencies worked with WWF-Russia to create the Persian Leopard Breeding and Rehabilitation Centre in Sochi National Park in the western Caucasus. They built the facility specifically to breed leopards, raise them as wild animals and then reintroduce them in the surrounding hills. The first two breeding animals arrived from Turkmenistan in 2009, with two more transferred from Iran in 2010 – leopards that had been injured or orphaned and couldn’t survive in the wild. The Lisbon Zoo in Portugal lent the centre a third pair in 2012.
By all accounts, Russian president Vladimir Putin – a fan of ferocious animals – personally supported the effort, visiting repeatedly and cuddling leopards brought in to the centre. His support helped biologists successfully breed 14 Persian leopard cubs to date, including the three released last week: brothers Akhun and Killi (offspring of breeding leopards Alum from Turkmenistan and Cheri from Iran) and their female partner Victoria.
But ongoing protection of the Mzymta Valley is key to the cats' success. This is the corridor that connects these young leopards with those in the rest of the world – in Georgia, Azerbeijan, Armenia, and ultimately Iran and Turkmenistan. Eight years after the initial compensation agreement, this critical link is looking frayed.
The billionaire developer of Olympic ski resorts in the valley wants to expand them further, and reports say government officials have been tussling over possible approval for months. The leopard reintroduction effort has an impressive list of government and scientific agencies supporting it, including the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation, Sochi National Park, Caucasus State Nature Biosphere Reserve, the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, the Moscow Zoo, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (not to mention Putin himself). Despite this, the state parliament recently voted to allow expansion of development in the protected zone, according to Chestin – and Putin has signed this into law.
"The area where the resorts are planned is exactly the area where the occasional sightings [of leopards] from the eastern Caucasus have been," says Chestin. "Our population, if re-established in the reserve, will have no connection to the rest of the range."
But Chestin and his colleagues haven't given up hope. They plan on releasing three more leopards by the end of the year and will be tracking Akhun, Killi and Victoria via satellite collars daily to see how they fare. The proposed ski development isn't a done deal yet – it still has to go through multiple stages of approval before construction can begin. "We hope to make sure that it doesn’t happen," says Chestin.
Tahbaz, too, is cautiously optimistic about the release. He has returned to Iran as an adult many times, and has seen how a growing human population has depleted leopards there. "Increasing human inhabitants in an area is always a threat to leopards," he says of the planned development in the Mzymta Valley. "But leopards are pretty adaptable. It depends on how conflicts [between people and leopards] are handled."
If leopard numbers rise substantially in the reserve, young males will start crowding each other out. Then, Tahbaz predicts, some of the cats might push on south to other parts of the Caucasus.
And who knows? Perhaps someday, like Tahbaz, Cheri's descendants will reconnect with her homeland too.
Top header image: Anton Agarkov/WWF-Russia