A TIGER can’t change its stripes – which is leading Russians to wonder if Vladimir Putin needs to change his story about which one he shot.
In one of the macho photo moments the Russian leader often indulges in, he was shown on an expedition with preservationists in the Far East in 2008 tracking wild Amur tigers.
According to video footage, Mr Putin shot one of the rare beasts with a tranquilliser gun so Russian scientists could put a GPS collar on it.
Mr Putin’s website later showed photos of what it claimed to be the same tiger, back in the wild.
But environmentalist Dmitry Molodtsov, who runs a website about the big cats, has come to the conclusion that the tiger shot by Putin isn’t the same one shown later in his video – and that the animal tranquillised by the Russian leader wasn’t a wild specimen at all but a comparatively docile animal from a zoo.
Mr Molodtsov insisted the tigress Mr Putin shot had been taken from a zoo and had never lived in the wild. He said photographs of a tiger named Serga at a zoo in the in the eastern city of Khabarovsk made him “99 per cent certain it was the tiger pictured with Putin”.
He said Serga was then taken on the long drive back to the Khabarovsk zoo. In the days that followed, the rare tiger died, unable to recover from the three tranquillisers used by scientists during the PR stunt.
Mr Molodtsov said he felt obligated to publish his investigation. “I thought this to be my civil duty to report this,” he said. “I want to live in a country where a politician will know that he can improve his declining ratings only with real deeds.”
Vladimir Krever, from the Russian branch of the World Wildlife Fund, agreed. “What I have seen online are two different animals,” he said.
But Natalya Remennikova, project co-ordinator at the government-funded Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution in Moscow, which is in charge of the Amur tiger preservation programme, said Mr Molodtsov’s claim was untrue.
“Somebody made it up or they thought they saw something suspicious,” she said, adding that the report could be aimed to smear Mr Putin, the current prime minister and president-elect.
The Russian leader is known for his stage-managed media appearances in an array of manly pursuits – stroking a polar bear, riding a horse bare-chested and hanging out with leather-clad bikers.
The images have endeared him to many Russians but provoked scorn among others. Last year, video footage showed him scuba diving and finding ancient Greek artefacts, which his spokesman later admitted had been planted on the sea bed.
Mr Putin served as president from 2000 to 2008 before shifting into the prime minister’s seat because of term limits. He won a third term in the 4 March election with 64 per cent of the vote, despite a wave of protests in Moscow against his rule.
He has long been a strong advocate of tiger conservation efforts. Fewer than 400 Ussuri tigers – also known as Siberian, Amur or Manchurian tigers – are believed to survive in the wild, most of them in Russia and some in China. They are the largest tiger species, weighing up to 600lbs.