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Doubts voiced over Putin tiger feat

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 tranquilliser 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, has posted an investigation indicating that the tiger shot by Putin is not the same one shown later on Putin's video. That leads him to suggest the tiger that Putin shot was not 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 artefacts while scuba diving, which his spokesman Dmitry Peskov later admitted had been planted on the seabed.

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, 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," he said.

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 tranquilliser 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% certain it was the tiger pictured with Putin".

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.

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