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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Brings Leopards Back to North Caucasus

RIA-Novosti / ReutersPrime Minister Vladimir Putin looking at a leopard, a gift from Turkmenistan’s president, at a national park in Sochi on Saturday.

SOCHI, Krasnodar Region — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin released two leopards into the wild over the weekend in a bid to revive the fortunes of the rare cats in the Caucasus and soothe environmental worries over the 2014 Sochi Games.

Persian leopards disappeared from the Caucasus in the 1920s because of excessive hunting. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov sent two male leopards caught in Turkmenistan by plane to Sochi. Female leopards are to follow.

“We are standing here and admiring your animals. Glorious animals, very beautiful,” Putin, surrounded by International Olympic Committee members, told Berdymukhammedov by telephone as he stood by the cage in the Sochi national park.

Russia won the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, and major construction works are about to begin.

Critics say huge construction projects may harm the environment. They question the need for spending billions of dollars on the games during a financial crisis and say they do not believe the infrastructure will be ready by 2014.

“I think Russia is on its way to organizing an exceptional Olympic Games,” French Alpine skiing legend and IOC member Jean-Claude Killy told reporters.

On Saturday, Putin stared in silence at one of the leopards, which initially refused to abandon his traveling cage, visibly stressed after its long journey.

“Good boy,” Putin said as the cat snarled at him and jumped out while guards and reporters pulled back.

“We have found common language, they understand me,” Putin said.

The leopards will gradually move to a larger fenced area of the park before they are released into the wild. Scientists plan to bring female leopards at a later stage and hope 30 to 50 of the cats will be living around Sochi in six years.