By NATALIYA VASILYEVA, Associated Press
MOSCOW (AP) — 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 in the Far East in 2008 with preservationists tracking wild Amur tigers. According to the video footage, Putin shot one of the rare beasts with a tranquilizer gun so Russian scientists could put a GPS collar on the tiger.
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, posted an investigation this month indicating that the tiger shot by Putin isn't the same one shown later on Putin's video.
That leads him to suggest the tiger that Putin shot wasn't a wild specimen at all but a comparatively docile animal from a zoo.
Putin is known for stage-managed media appearances in an array of manly pursuits — petting a polar bear, riding a horse bare-chested and hanging out with leather-clad bikers. The images have endeared him to many Russians and provoked scorn among others — in particular last year's video footage of him finding ancient Greek artifacts while scuba diving, which his spokesman Dmitry Peskov later admitted had been planted on the seabed.
Peskov could not be reached for comment Friday about the tiger encounter. But Natalya Remennikova, project coordinator at the government-funded Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution in Moscow, which is in charge of the Amur tiger preservation program, dismissed Molodtsov's claim as untrue.
"Somebody made it up or they thought they saw something suspicious," she said, adding that the report could be aimed to smear Putin, the current prime minister and president-elect.
Photos on Putin's website do show tigers with different coat patterns during the encounter with Putin and afterward in the wild.
Vladimir Krever of the Russian branch of the World Wildlife Fund agreed.
"What I have seen online are two different animals," said Vladimir Krever, WWF's biodiversity coordinator. But he said he cannot vouch for the authenticity of the photograph and suggested that the camera might have captured another tiger.
Molodtsov insisted there can be no doubt about the authenticity of the photographs he was comparing because they were posted on Putin's website.
He alleged that the tigress Putin shot with a tranquilizer had been taken from a zoo and had never lived in the wild. He said photographs of a tiger in the Khabarovsk Zoo made him "99 percent certain it was the tiger pictured with Putin."
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."
Putin served as president in from 2000 to 2008 before shifting into the prime minister's seat because of term limits. He won a third term in the March 4 election with 64 percent of the vote despite a wave of massive protests in Moscow against his rule.
Putin 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 600 pounds (272 kilograms).
Molodtsov's investigation: http://bigcats.ru/forum/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=3730
Putin website tiger section: http://premier.gov.ru/patron/en/tiger/