On the Presence of Snow Leopards in Sochi

The endangered species is a convenient mascot for Putin's Olympics, but the story behind the symbol isn't quite fit for primetime. 

Markus Schreiber/AP

Every Olympics since 1972 has had an official mascot. There's your standard animal variety (Roni the raccoon in Lake Placid, Misha the bear in Moscow), and then there are outliers—everything from cartoon characters (Håkon and Kristin in Lillehammer) to droplets of steel (Wenlocke and Mandeville in London).

For the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia selected a trio of mascots: the hare, the polar bear, and the snow leopard. The polar bear seems to be the only one with a name (it's Bely Mishka, by the way), but the leopard is definitely Vladimir Putin's favorite. It's a symbol, the Russian president contends, of a modern Russia interested in reviving the species and the country's natural resources.

Now, being the object of Putin's affection has its pluses and minuses. The Russian leader, it turns out, has a long and complicated history with wild cats—one explored recently by Bill Donahue in the the Natural Resources Defense Council's OnEarth Magazine.

The central question in Donahue's article is whether Russia's "declared commitment to wildlife conservation ... has any basis in reality," and the snow leopard's symbolic presence in Sochi offers a perfect lens through which to investigate.

Some wire services, including the AP
mistakenly identified Putin's furry friend
here as a snow leopard cub. It's actually
a Persian leopard. (Alexei Nikolsky/AP)

The first glitch in the snow-leopard story is that those leopards cuddling with Putin—the ones he's built a sanctuary for in Sochi National Park and literally held in his lap for photo-ops earlier this month—are Persian leopards, not snow leopards. It's a minor but important distinction: Panthera pardus saxicolor versus Panthera uncia.

The next complaint is that real snow leopards would never be found near Sochi, which is a coastal city. Snow leopards are mountain-dwellers. Of the few thousand thought to exist, most are found at high altitudes in China, Mongolia, and Pakistan. James Gibbs, a conservation biologist, estimates that fewer than a hundred of these cats live in Siberia and can be considered Russian.

But hey, there aren't any polar bears in Sochi, either. And the main mascot at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 was the mythical Sasquatch. Besides, the snow leopard does fit in nicely with the athletic endeavors of the Winter Olympics, what with the animal's jumping and snow-traversing abilities and all (see the Snow Leopard Trust's cheeky comments about why skiers and snowboarders should envy the animal). And many conservationists, Gibbs included, are cheering the benefits of Sochi's spotlight. "The creature does need all the attention it can get," said Gibbs, who has been working on snow-leopard conservation with organizations in Russia and Mongolia for years.

Then again, the Persian leopard is in just as much, if not more, need of awareness and conservation. And this species actually has roots closer to Sochi, across the greater Caucasus. Scientists estimate that between 1,000 and 2,000 Persian leopards are alive today, mostly in Iran, but that they could make a comeback in the Caucasus with the right measures in place.

The Sochi organizers, in fact, have quietly modified the mascot's appearance from the white snow leopard, shown below in a 2013 International Olympic Committee pamphlet, to the ambiguously-specied yellow leopard we saw at the Opening Ceremonies.

Sochi 2014
Jim Young/Reuters

Whatever the species of Sochi's mascot, conservationists' main concern is that Putin is exploiting leopards for the sake of a flimsy narrative about Russia's commitment to protecting wildlife. (One also wonders if the Russian president knows the difference between a snow leopard and a Persian leopard.) Even as Russia has faced criticism for degrading the environment in constructing venues for the Games, Putin has touted his plan for bringing leopards back to Russia, a country that "cares for nature, cares about its resources, restoring it for future generations." As Donahue writes in OnEarth, "It’s one thing to publicly declare your love for an endangered animal and pledge to increase its numbers. If at the same time you’re wiping out that creature’s native habitat—well, what kind of love is that?"

Around Sochi and elsewhere, he continues, "Putin is fast destroying the unspoiled woodlands necessary for the leopard’s survival—even as he signs papers formally expanding" the Caucasus Biosphere Reserve, which is where the leopard cubs bred in Sochi National Park will be released once they mature. "The whirlwind development under his watch," amply demonstrated by the transformation of Sochi, "makes biologists not on the Russian payroll question whether suitable leopard habitat will even exist in southeastern Russia 20 years from now." If the leopard is a symbol for the new Russia, it might not be a lasting one.