Snow leopards and the art of Olympic environmental diplomacy

The Reuters global sports blog

June 23rd, 2009

Posted by: Karolos Grohmann There is an art in dealing with environmental issues when preparing to host Olympic Games.Athens for example, while preparing to host the 2004 Olympics, decided to construct the rowing venue inside a protected nature reserve and just a few hundred metres from the historic site of the ancient battle of Marathon. Environmental groups were up in arms for years before organisers said while they would build the venue there they would also save a rare fish (which looked more like a frog) living in the tiny creeks of the nature reserve. The rowing centre was built and after the Games it was never used again because of environmental restrictions.Russian organisers of the 2014 Winter Olympics are no different.Sochi had planned to construct the bobsled, luge and skeleton venue and a mountain Olympic village in a part of the Krasnaya Polyana mountains bordering a Unesco World Heritage Site, including the Caucasus State Biosphere Nature Reserve.Environmentalists claimed the construction would irreparably damage the fragile natural balance of the area. After much deliberation and mounting pressure, including from the United Nations Environmental Programme, it was decided that the venues had to be moved before more concerns about the impact of the Games in the area started to surface.While what organisers themselves have called “maybe the biggest construction site in the world” is going ahead across the wider Sochi area, they have also highlighted their decision to reintroduce the snow leopard, a species that had been extinct for many decades in the region.An elaborate process of taking the same species of snow leopard from Turkmenistan, breeding it and then introducing the cubs in the mountains near Sochi is under way under the personal attention of the IOC’s chief inspector for Sochi, Jean-Claude Killy.It does make you wonder. If every organising committee of Olympic Games showed that much attention to environmental detail for their overall Games plan, instead of merely responding to the outcry of environmental groups, would there ever be any complaints from nature lovers?There’d certainly be a lot more wildlife.

4 thoughts on “Snow leopards and the art of Olympic environmental diplomacy”

  1. Reuters got the wrong species! The plan is to reintroduce Caucasus or Persian
    leopard Panthera pardus saxicolor/ciscaucasicus there and they intend to bring
    common leopards from Turkmenistan. Snow leopards do not occur in the Caucasus or
    Turkmenistan. There were a few old reports from the Kopet Dagh mountains along the
    Iran-Turkmenistan border but these have been shown in the Russian literature to be
    mis-identified skins of Persian leopard (which can be very pale and have a
    relatively thick coat).

    David Mallon

    Dear All,
    Should be some mistake in that news. Snow leopard never inhabited Caucasus Mountains (Kavcaz in Russian), where Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana locate. Organizers of 2014 Olympic Games talking about introduction the common leopard – subspecies from Turkmenistan, because there is very limited number of evidences about Caucasian subspecies of the leopard.
    Around month ago we met with Victor Loukarevsky (the leopard expert) in Russian Far East, and had talk to about introduction topic. Question of introduction is also discussing in relation to Amur leopard subspecies, but … without reason. If someone will be interested in questions united survival of Amur leopard, Snow leopard, Amur tiger, Asiatic cheetah, and the other big cats in peripheral populations, see the last issue (2009, N1) of the Rhythm Journal All the best, Evgeniy Kashkarov

    Dear SLN members;
    There are plans to introduce mid-asian leopards to the area. 4 animals were gifted to Russia by the President of Turkmenistan and the process of capturing them is going on now.
    There were no snow leopards in the area ever but mid-asian leopards inhabit Caucasus along with adjacent mountainous territories of Iran and Turkmenistan.
    I haven’t been mistaken – inhabit and not inhabited.
    Mid-asian leopard inhabits the territory nowadays. In March this year one of the local hunting inspectors was lucky to make a photo with his cell phone (attached).
    So this reintroduction issue is very controversial as for me (I dropped here genetic and other biological and ecological aspects and possible consequences) and looks mainly as PR campain of Russian Government, WWF, and some others.
    Again, no snow leopards in the area ever. The western limit of SL range starts in Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and is about 1500 km to the east of the Caucasus mountains.
    Andrey Subbotin

    Correction to Reuters posted on their blog 25Jun09

    Dear Reuters,

    I am writing on behalf of the Snow Leopard Network ( in regards to your article from 23 June 2009 (

    The Snow Leopard Network is a worldwide organization dedicated to facilitating the exchange of information between individuals around the world for the purpose of snow leopard conservation. Our membership includes leading snow leopard experts in the public, private, and non-profit sectors.

    Karolos Grohmann referenced the wrong species. Snow leopards have not previously and do not currently occur in the Caucasus Mountains (including the Sochi Region) or Turkmenistan. The western limit of snow leopard range begins in Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, about 1500 km to the east of the Caucasus Mountains.

    The Olympic Committee’s plan is actually to reintroduce the Caucasus or Persian leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor/ciscaucasicus) in that location and organizers intend to bring common leopards from Turkmenistan.

    Thank you for your time and consideration.

    Kind regards,

    Rana Bayrakci
    Program Coordinator, the Snow Leopard Network

  2. 22 Sep 2009: This story continues in conjunction with the actual release of two male leopards, called “West Asian leopards” in one instance but usually incorrectly named as “snow leopards”. Numerous articles may now be found online, including the following:

    A photo of one of the released leopards is posted here:

    Putin Hangs out With the Big Cats: Snow Leopards
    Putin releases 2 snow leopards into southern Russia, fulfilling Olympic pledge
    MOSCOW September 21, 2009 (AP) or

  3. A clrifying article from 22 May 2007:

    Roza Khutor to bring Persian leopard back to Russia’s Caucasus

    World Wildlife Fund and the company Roza Khutor, which conducts the construction of the ski resort in Sochi (a resort city in Russia’s South) announced the launch of a unique project titled “The Recovery of the Persian Leopard in the Caucasus.”

    The project is being implemented with the support of the Russian Ministry for Natural Resources and the Russian Service for Nature Control. The rehabilitation of the Persian leopard in the Caucasus will become the first large environmental project of WWF Russia, funded by the Russian business. Beeline, a major cellular operator in Russia, joins Roza Khutor in the project.
    The leopard was widely spread in the Caucasus not so long ago. The animal’s habitat covered almost all mountainous territories. However, its population was considerably reduced at the end of the 19th and in the beginning of the 20th centuries due to extensive extermination of the animal. Only several individuals had been left in the Caucasus by the 1950s. Severe winter conditions (deep snow and lack of hoofed animals) and the ongoing extermination of predatory animals minimized the leopard population even further. The animal could hardly be spotted anywhere in the region in the 1960s and the 1970s.
    In Russia the leopard has been preserved in remote areas of the Eastern Caucasus. However, the remaining group of animals with undermined population structure is not viable there.
    The goal of the WWF and its project partners is to bring the Persian leopard back to Russia. According to the project, leopards from various European zoos are going to be transported to their new habitat. Specialists will set up open-air enclosures for their maintenance and breeding and perform a set of measures to adapt the animals to the natural conditions of the Caucasus.
    “Our goals are ambitious. We are happy that our idea to return the leopard to Russia’s Caucasus has received support from the scientific community, the government and the Russian business that will actually fund the implementation of the program, Igor Chestin, the Director of WWF Russia said.
    “The project on the recovery of the Caucasian panther attracted our attention with its uniqueness,” the General Director of the company Roza Khutor, Nina Zagorulko said. “Such cases of saving animals from extinction have not been practiced before anywhere of the world. We like the idea of becoming the first, not only in business and sports. In addition, the existence of the Caucasian panther is considered to be a positive sign for the entire ecological system of the region. This is a very important factor for the development of the ecological tourism in Russia’s South, which complies with the concept of the Roza Khutor resort.
    The construction of open-air enclosures, to which leopards will be brought from many European zoos, will be started at the National Park of Sochi on May 24. The cubs born in the enclosures will become the basis to recreate the Russian population of the leopard in the Caucasus. The animals are to be released in the wild world during 2008-2013.

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