Whilst in the West we have traditionally thought of Russia and other previously Communist states as wanting to dominate nature and thus having a poor environmental record. We might even be forgiven for thinking of Russia as a barren landscapes in part, but we would be wrong about both. This is something which is certainly becoming evident as a battle of wills appears to be erupting between snow leopard conservation, the desire to develop their Ski resorts and the Kremlin.
Persian leopards disappeared from Western Russia in the 1920’s. A combination of habitat loss, trapping and trophy hunting have taken their toll on the population, diminishing it to a fraction of its former range. The Persian leopard is now mostly found in Iran and Turkmenistan. A young zoologist visiting their former range in the 1980’s starting questioning why we weren’t reintroducing the leopards. That man was Igor Chestin, now the president of the Russian branch of the World Wildlife Fund.
However it wasn’t until Russia won its bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi that the opportunity arose as Kremlin planners were charged with drawing up an ecological restoration programme in order to compensate for damage caused by construction projects for the games. As a result a leopard rehabilitation centre was constructed overlooking the Mzymta river.
Not only has a unique facility been created but so has an ambitious plan. Leopards housed at the rehabilitation centre are being bred and taught how to survive in the wild so that ultimately they can be reintroduced back to the wilds they once roamed. The chosen leopards will be flown to Caucasus Biosphere Reserve, which is a prohibited area dominated by the rare species which inhabit it.
Therein lies the problem. Caucasus Biosphere Reserve is currently under threat from Russia’s desire to develop and compete with other countries tourism industries. Despite the restoration programme drawn up before the Sochi games environmentalists are claiming that developers are undermining this because of a booming trade at the Sochi National Park. Operators at the resorts here claim that they need to create more slopes in order to keep up with demand, something which would cut a migration corridor for any reintroduced leopards.
However this isn’t as simple as development versus migration. Significant splits of opinion have also been spotted in the Kremlin regarding this subject. Understandably Dmitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister responsible for the Olympic legacy is supporting development in the area. However there are also unnamed influential figures close to Putin who are claimed to be on the side of the leopards.
The Telegraph has also reported that the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has written in support of the leopards warning that it could seriously impact upon Russias standing on the world stage and “allowing developers into the upper Mzymta valley could see UNESCO list the Western Caucasus as a World Heritage Site in Danger.”
Ultimately it is Putin who will have the final say and perhaps conservationists can take hope from his previous involvement with the project. However he will have to make a decision mirrored across many other governments regarding whether to invest in economic development or uphold environmental protections and act as an example for the governments which choose the former option.
It is an unenviable position as Russia’s tourism industry was in near collapse last year. However despite the depreciation of the Ruble and a decline in living standards across the country, the tourism industry is on the up with a sharp increase in domestic tourism expected in coming years due to increased cost of flying. It seems then that this would be the perfect time to invest in Sochi and other resorts.
However it would be fantastic for Putin to choose to put protected nature reserves first. He would be able to hold that up as an example to governments like David Cameron’s UK Government who are currently undermining national parks in order to allow fracking in them. Perhaps even Russia could set a global precedent although it seems unlikely.
Regardless of the decision, the first leopards are in the final stages of their preparation. This summer will see the first reintroduction attempt and hopefully will lead to more leopards reestablishing themselves in their former range whether it is protected or not.
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