Two leopards from Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan are recovering after a long flight and car ride to their new homes in a Russian national park, as part of efforts to reintroduce the species into the Caucasus region.
The leopards were moved into spacious pens in Sochi National Park in southwestern Russia as part of a species reintroduction programme implemented by WWF and the Russian government.
They travelled more than 1,000 kilometres by plane and then by car, and are in good health despite the long trip and being put under anaesthesia.
Upon arrival, the leopards were met by WWF, park staff and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Saturday and then released into large pens inside a special centre created for them in the park.
The big cats (Panthera pardus saxicolor) will take part in the Programme for Persian Leopard Reintroduction, developed by experts from WWF and the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, and approved by the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology.
'There are very few leopards in the whole of Caucasus, only a few dozen,' said Igor Chestin, WWF-Russia CEO. 'They exist with the help of some inflow from Iran, which has several hundreds remaining. We want to create a new, Northern-based nucleus of the population, so that together with the Southern nucleus in Iran it can guarantee sustainability for the leopard population both in the Russian Caucasus and neighbouring countries.'
The Leopards are already actively moving around. They drink a lot of water, which is normal after anaesthesia, and one of them on Sunday ate a slab of meat given to him by veterinarians. Both leopards are males.
'They will have time to adapt to the new conditions and start to feel ownership of the territory by the time females arrive,' said Umar Semyonov, deputy director of the Sochi national park. 'And it will be easier for females to adapt with support from males.'
The leopards from Turkmenistan will live in the Centre for breeding and rehabilitation in the Sochi national park. Only their descendants will be released into the wild in the Caucasus strict nature reserve.
'Areas for future release were carefully chosen to resemble as much as possible leopards' habitat in Turkmenistan, both in terms of relief and prey,' said Professor Anatoly Kudaktin, programme scientific supervisor. 'Conditions in the Caucasus will be even more comfortable in some ways than in Turkmenistan, and ungulate density is higher here.'
These types of leopards are endangered because most of their habitats were lost in the last century due to transformation and migration routes between remaining isolated populations are cut off due to infrastructure development, which has led to small fragmented populations that cannot easily breed.
Financially, the Programme is supported by WWF-Russia, 'Rosa Khutor' Company, VympelCom Group, and Russian government.