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Rare Birds 'Died' In Russian Leader's Latest Wildlife Mishap

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks at a crane as he sits in a motorized deltaplane on the Yamal Peninsula on September 5.
Vladimir Putin's stunt with Siberian cranes this week was intended to display both his tough-guy image and his commitment toward saving endangered species.

But what it perhaps best highlighted was his curious knack for causing harm to rare animals.

Russian television on September 6 aired footage of the animal-loving president leading orphaned chick cranes in flight aboard an ultralight aircraft.

The exercise was meant to teach the critically endangered birds, who were raised in captivity, to follow the aircraft on their winter migration to Central Asia.

Putin's encounter with the chicks, however, was overshadowed by reports that two of them had died during preparations for his arrival.

A biology student at the nature reserve where the birds are raised, some 200 kilometers southeast of Moscow, revealed that one of the chicks had died after getting caught in the plane's propeller during training.

Maria Goncharova wrote on the Russian social-networking website vKontakte that several other birds were badly injured while being transported to the flight venue, on the Yamal Peninsula in the Russian Arctic.

"One more broke a beak and tore off its claws on crooked netting. Another one died due to faulty transportation...many badly cut themselves," she wrote. "And all this to fly once with Pu."

Goncharova deleted the comment several hours after posting it.

Nature Stunts Gone Wrong

If her story is true, the deaths deal a severe blow to efforts to save the species from extinction. Russian biologists say there are fewer than 20 of this type of Siberian crane living in the wild.

Vladimir Putin flies with cranes as he takes part in a scientific experiment as part of the "Flight of Hope", which aims to preserve a rare species of cranes.
Vladimir Putin flies with cranes as he takes part in a scientific experiment as part of the "Flight of Hope", which aims to preserve a rare species of cranes.

Putin has participated in a number of purportedly scientific adventures over the years, many involving wild animals and all enjoying abundant media coverage.

He has been seen firing a crossbow at a whale to collect tissue samples, tagging polar bears, and bottle-feeding a baby moose.

But Putin's wildlife conservation efforts have often turned awry and sparked accusations of animal cruelty.

In 2008, he was filmed shooting a wild Siberian tigress with a tranquilizer gun before placing a satellite-tracking collar around her neck.

Although the tigress has occasionally returned to the media spotlight, animal activists claim it was a substitute and that the original cat died of a sedative overdose after Putin's security insisted on increasing the dose of the tranquilizer.

Environmentalists claim the tigress was borrowed from a zoo for the stunt.

Another of Putin's scientific feats, a recent diving expedition during which he brought up fragments of ancient Greek amphorae, was revealed to be a set-up.

Putin has also come under fire over the capture of Mongol, a snow leopard he visited in Siberia last year. Russian authorities say Mongol, who has since become the official mascot for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, was rescued from poachers.

But the World Wildlife Fund says the endangered leopard was in fact abducted from a nature reserve, flown 160 kilometers from its habitat, and held in captivity for a week before Putin's visit. The organization claims the animal sustained facial injuries during its capture.

After flying with the Siberian cranes, Putin told reporters his conservation efforts would go on. "We need to talk to specialists," he quipped. "But it shouldn't be just for fun, it should be useful."