SOCHI, Russia — Three Persian leopards dashed back and forth along the far side of the enclosure, emitting low, forbidding growls. Suddenly, one charged at a Russian cameraman with a roar and a crash, 180 pounds of sleek muscle colliding with an increasingly flimsy-looking chain-link fence.
At the Persian Leopard Breeding and Rehabilitation Center in the foothills above Sochi, scientists funded by the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry plan to begin reintroducing the cats to their native Caucasus Mountains this month. These scientists work under the patronage of President Vladimir Putin, who styles himself as a defender of rare animals — especially large, picturesque, lethal ones. Before the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Putin visited the center with journalists and was photographed petting a leopard as if it were a house cat. With his endorsement, a leopard was voted one of the official mascots of the games.
The leopards became a symbol of Russia’s supposed commitment to mitigating the environmental harm caused by the Olympics, which saw wide-scale destruction of the surrounding habitat: The protected Imeretinskaya Lowland, a marshy area populated by endangered bird species, was filled in with gravel to build stadiums, and the Mzymta River was so polluted that endangered salmon stopped spawning there. As compensation for environmental damage, the organizing committee promised to place a section of the upper Mzymta River valley, a key part of the leopards’ future habitat, under UNESCO protection, among other measures.