Persian leopards return to Caucasus

Three cats are expected to lay foundation for new Persian leopard population in Russia

Leopard Simbad in the Parc des Felins (France), before delivery to Russia, 2015

Three Persian leopards were released into Russia’s Caucasus (Kavkazsky) State Nature Biosphere Reserve today. The event is a remarkable step in restoring leopard populations to the Caucasus.

Until the middle of the 20th century, Persian leopards were common in the Caucasus. But by 1950, their population had dramatically decreased, and was entirely extinct in some areas due to human activities.

In 2005, experts from WWF-Russia and the Russian Academy of Science developed a long-term program to reintroduce Persian leopards in the Caucasus. Russian President Vladimir Putin has supported the program since 2009

The work was an ambitious undertaking. First, the territory was prepared for the rare cats. Ungulate populations were increased in order to provide prey and protection measures strengthened. Adult leopards from zoos cannot be released into the wild: they are unable to catch prey and are not afraid of humans. In 2009, with support from WWF, a special center was built near Sochi to breed and prepare leopards for a life in the wild.

Initially, the Center hosted two males from Turkmenistan and two females from Iran. Later, a leopard pair brought from the Lisbon Zoo had their first litter in the Center in 2013. By 2016, a total of 14 kittens were born in the center.

The leopards released today have reached sexual maturity and received special training to survive independently in the wild. They also have satellite collars that will allow program staffers to track the cats after their release.

The program aims to create a self-sustaining Persian leopard population in the wild, which means a population of at least 50 leopards in the Northern Caucasus. Though there is still much work to do, this first release offers tremendous hope for these endangered cats.

The Program for Reintroduction (Restoration) of the Leopard in the Caucasus was initiated in 2005 by WWF-Russia. In 2007, it was approved by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation, and since 2009, it has been supported personally by Vladimir Putin. The Program 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, and with the support from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA).