September 20 - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (pictured) has released two leopards into the wild in a bid to revive the fortunes of the rare cats in the Caucasus and soothe ecological worries over 2014 Sochi Games.

Caucasian or Persian leopards disappeared from the Caucasus in the 1920s due to excessive hunting.

Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov sent two male leopards caught in Turkmenistan by plane to Sochi.

Female leopards are to follow.

Putin said: "We are standing here and admiring your animals.

"Glorious animals, very beautiful."

Putin was joined by senior International Olympic Committee members (IOC) officials, including Jean-Claude Killy, the chairman of the IOC's Coordination Commission for the 2014 Games, and Gilbert Felli, the IOC's director of the Olympic Games.

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

Killy said: "I think Russia is on its way to organising an exceptional Olympic Games."

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

He said: "Good boy.

"We have found common language, they understand me."

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 some 30-50 cats will be living around Sochi in six years.

The centre in Krasnaya Polyana near the Black Sea resort of Sochi will be Russia's first hub for saving the an leopards from extinction.

One of major tasks facing the new facility will be to repopulate the entire Russian Caucasus with leopards within the next 10 to 15 years.

The rare animals are on the Red List of Threatened Species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

There are still some leopards in Iran and in the  former Soviet states of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.

Putin said: "It's good that the project is actually an international one."

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