David Owen on an unusual legacy from the Sochi Olympics
When people talk about Olympic legacy, they usually mean the important but parochial business of whether Games infrastructure benefits the broader population once the athletes have gone home.
But what if the Olympics could play a part in something more fundamental, like the reintroduction of a vanished species?
And I don’t mean loxodonta niveus, the white elephant.
It is now six months since I thought I heard Dmitry Chernyshenko, chief executive of Sochi 2014 – which was visited last week by members of the International Olympic Committee’s Co-ordination Commission - talking at a London conference about trying to re-establish the Caucasian leopard.
My first reaction was astonishment: I thought leopards came from Africa or, at a push, the more remote parts of the Himalayas.
The idea that they might be roaming the fringes of Europe in the region of the Caucasus was, I must admit, a new one on me.
But, yes, I quickly established that the big cats were known in that region.
Bejan Lortkipanidze, an official with a Georgian organisation called NACRES, told me that small populations of the Caucasian leopard existed in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Russia and Turkey.
“It seems that the largest population is in Iran,” Lortkipanidze continued.
“Probably this population supports other small populations in the region.
“According to provisional estimates…there are approximately 50 individuals in the Lesser Caucasus and fewer than 15 individuals left in the Greater Caucasus.”
Igor Khorozyan, an Armenian specialist, told me in similar vein that the “current number of leopards in the entire Caucasus is unlikely to exceed 30 individuals”.
Programme has backing of Putin
And, yes, when I checked, the subject of leopards did crop up on the Sochi 2014 website.
In November last year, for example, Chernyshenko’s progress report to the European Olympic Committees was said to have included the following passage:
“The Russian Government has already launched the Environment Programme for Sochi 2014.
“Another environmental initiative is the initiative to reintroduce the snow [sic] leopard to the Caucasus Mountains – this is under the personal supervision of Prime Minister Putin and Jean-Claude Killy.”
Having got this far, my second reaction, I have to say, was to be sceptical.
Wasn’t the Sochi Winter Olympics project coming in for its fair share of criticism on environmental grounds?
Wouldn’t this be an eye-catching way of countering such criticism, whether or not the leopard population ended up being durably lifted?
And let’s face it, whatever its other merits, you would have thought that Sochi’s Olympic-inspired development plan would be likely to make the immediate area less, rather than more, leopard-friendly.
Frankly, I’m still far from convinced that such scepticism isn’t appropriate.
According to Khorozyan, “the Russian Caucasus represents the marginal part of the leopard’s global range, where environmental conditions are unlikely to be optimal and where the chances of extinction are the highest”.
He further told me: “The biggest problem this initiative might face is that the leopard is by origin a tropical species – so it cannot live at high elevations where snow is deep and therefore needs lowlands and foothills.
“But all such potential habitats in the reintroduction sites are occupied by people and infrastructure….
“Hopefully [the Russians] will succeed in [making the Games environmentally friendly].
“But I don’t think that leopards will benefit…
“There are no suitable habitats there.
“Moreover, the founder individuals for this reintroduction programme will likely be brought from Turkmenistan, where leopards are not accustomed to living in snow.
“That might get them into trouble.”
European zoos to be involved
Vladimir Krever, biodiversity programme co-ordinator at WWF-Russia (part of what we used to know as the World Wildlife Fund), confirmed to me that a few animals had already been captured in Turkmenistan.
“This is the same sub-species,” he said, explaining that leopards which migrated as far north as Russia would come through the eastern side of the Caucasus because the mountains on the western side, most adjacent to Sochi, were too high.
“Hopefully”, Krever told me, these Turkmenistan leopards would arrive in Sochi “in the autumn”.
He indicated that they might be supplemented with leopards from European zoos: there were around 46 leopards from the same saxicolor sub-species in captivity in Europe.
The idea, as I understand it, is to try and establish a breeding population in Sochi National Park before starting to release cubs into the wild.
This would be done when they were two years old – so, it seems, not before 2012 at the absolute earliest.
Project should be encouraged
When I asked him about links between the reintroduction project and Sochi 2014 and whether the Olympic Games could really be good for leopards, Krever referred me to a WWF-Russia press release.
This begins with a quote attributable to Igor Chestin, WWF-Russia chief executive.
“We’re proud that Russia is the Olympic candidate winner,” Chestin said.
“But at the same time we will do our best to ensure that construction works do not destroy the environment.”
Even if I remain sceptical, this does not mean that I think Sochi 2014’s interest in big cats is a bad thing.
For projects such as this to succeed, it seems to me, they almost invariably entail a degree of transnational co-operation; leopards being no respecters of national boundaries.
In a region as politically volatile as the Caucasus, such cooperation – however difficult – is very much to be encouraged.
You could argue, indeed, that conservationists and scientists are comparatively well-placed to blaze a trail in this regard, since they will often share the same broad goals.
More concretely, you would have thought that wildlife conservationists ought to be able to turn Sochi’s interest in leopards to their advantage by using it to extract some hard Olympic cash – not to mention robust and durable government support – for their initiatives.
If Sochi’s interest results in the cause of regional leopard conservation being better resourced, then it would be churlish to be too critical – especially if it leads to this sort of natural legacy becoming more of a feature of future Olympic Games projects.
David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 World Cup. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed by clicking here.