MOSCOW - "There's a good kitty, a pretty kitty," Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was shown by state media telling snow leopard last weekend, who stared back at him, covered in fresh blood.
The rare species is the latest to go under "personal control" of the Russian leader, who is overseeing research programs on a handful of mammals, including the tiger, beluga whale and polar bear.
As part of that work he has taken part in several tagging missions with scientists from the Moscow-based Severtsov Institute.
But other scientists have said the snow leopard was harmed, and that the program is scientifically unreasonable and directed more towards publicity.
The leopard, called Mongol, had to be flown to Khakasia, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) away from its habitat in the Sayano-Shushensky reserve, and was held in captivity for five days, released only after meeting Putin.
The removal of the animal was "criminal", according to the regional UNDP-funded programme on biodiversity, since the Severtsov institute only had permission to tag Mongol, which could have been done in 15 minutes.
On Sunday, the Severtsov institute said on its website that the animal had to be held and treated for wounds on his neck and cheekbone.
"He was ill," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told AFP, dismissing allegations that the animal had been held captive in order to meet the prime minister as "absolutely groundless."
But Alexander Bondarev, the manager of UNDP's program, argued: "That any treatment was necessary is a big question.
"It is as though he was cured as soon as he saw the prime minister," he added.
"If he really needed treatment, he could be treated in a zoo or in a veterinary center."
Mongol could even have harmed himself as he was trying to break loose, said another observer.
"The important question is: how was the animal affected by staying in a cage?" said WWF Russia head Igor Chestin.
"Big cats, when disturbed, start hitting against it and can break their teeth, and without teeth they will not survive in the wild."
There are only 100 snow leopards in Russia. "Each is literally golden," said Bondarev.
They were easier to catch in the Sayano-Shushensky reserve, but tagging its population was not scientifically valuable, he added.
"There are only seven or eight specimens there, they are isolated and well studied," he said. Tagging had to be done together with on-ground monitoring to see why the animal was moving in a certain way, he added.
"That cannot be done in a strictly protected area such as a reserve," he said.
The Severtsov institute's program, which studies animals in the Red Book of endangered species "and other especially important animals of Russia" currently lists six mammals, most of which were tagged, patted, or kissed by Putin.
The program is funded by state oil transport monopoly Transneft, and a Saint Petersburg-based charitable fund "Konstantinovsky", which is chaired mostly by government officials.
The first time the general public heard about it was in 2008, when Putin voiced support for the endangered Amur Tiger and participated in a tagging expedition in the Russian Far East.
A video about the expedition on the prime minister's website relates how a helicopter carrying Vladimir Putin landed in the taiga.
Just as the prime minister is overseeing the facilities, "a tigress stumbles across a trap," the video relates.
Putin personally drives the SUV to the scene, and "appears on the trail just at the moment the tigress makes a leap." Handy with a gun, Putin shoots a syringe with the sedative, says the video's commentary.
But that version of events does not gel with that told by some members of the conservation community, as one Far Eastern tiger expert told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Local conservationists believe the animal was flown in from the Khabarovsk zoo (about 500 kilometres away) in time for the visit.
It was placed in the trap, sedated just enough so it could start stirring when the delegation drove up, he said.
Later the animal was returned to the zoo and a different wild tigress was eventually captured and released with the tracker.
"This could be confirmed by a stripe pattern comparison," the source said: "For each animal the pattern is unique."
The big cat programmes advertised as pioneering on the Institute's website have no synergy with local research, which has been going on for 18 years, he added.
"They like to say their project is supported by the government, so nobody voices any serious criticism. But locally scientists don't like them, since they structure programs based on convenience and PR."
At the WWF, Chestin complained of low salaries, a cut in the number of rangers and other changes introduced after the government did away with its federal environmental protection committee.
"While considerable money is being spent lately on research, systematically, conservation of animals is in very poor shape," he said.
It was Putin himself who signed the decree to end the committee's existence on May 17th, 2000, ten days after his inauguration.
Image: Tambako the Jaguar / via Flickr