Image: Putin looks at snow leopard
Alexei Druzhinin  /  AP
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, gets a close look at a West Asian snow leopard on Saturday in Sochi, Russia.
updated 9/21/2009 1:10:28 PM ET 2009-09-21T17:10:28

Once again, Vladimir Putin is hanging out with the big cats.

The Russian prime minister supervised the release of two snow leopards into a wildlife sanctuary near the southern resort of Sochi, fulfilling a pledge he made before Russia won the right to host the 2014 Olympic Games.

The male snow leopards imported from Turkmenistan were freed Saturday as Putin, the International Olympic Committee's Jean-Claude Killy and IOC executive director Gilbert Felli looked on, the IOC said Monday.

Plans call for females to be introduced later and a breeding program begun.

Putin had pledged to reintroduce the big cats to the Caucasus if Russia won the 2014 Winter Olympic games, the IOC said. Russia was awarded the games in July 2007.

Snow leopards are extinct in the Caucasus, the IOC said, although they survive in the mountains of Central Asia.

Russian officials hailed move as evidence of their commitment to improving the region's environment. Critics of the games have said the construction of Olympic venues would damage the fragile ecosystems of Russia's mountainous Black Sea coastline.

It wasn't the first time Russia's premier has tangled with big cats. Putin shot a rare Ussuri tiger with a tranquilizer dart in Russia's Far East in August 2008 before fitting it with a tracking collar.

In October 2008, he received a Ussuri cub as a birthday gift and said he would find it a home in a zoo or a preserve.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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