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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 May, 2004, 15:40 GMT 16:40 UK
Lone leopard spotted in Georgia
By the BBC's Natalia Antelava
in Georgia

Noah, caught on remote-sensing camera

A single leopard has been discovered in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, years after the big cats were thought to be extinct in the area.

Zoologists were first alerted by some footprints in the Vashlovani State Reserve, which looked far too large to belong to the much smaller lynx.

The leopard - now named Noah - was then caught on remote-sensing cameras.

Although Noah is the only leopard to be spotted in the area since 1954, many fear he is in danger from poachers.

Mythology and folklore

Thousands of years ago, close relatives of African and Asian leopards roamed over Europe, as far north as England.

Their numbers in the Caucasus were even high enough to earn them a starring role in Georgian mythology and folklore.

But the rise of humans - with their taste for hunting - took its toll: the Georgian leopard seemed to slip away into extinction.

At the beginning of the last century, naturalists described rare sightings of the secretive cat in the mountains of the great Caucasus range.

But the sightings dwindled and, when a leopard was killed in central-east Georgia over 50 years ago, it was thought to be the last.

New hope

Then, in the late 1990s, the rumours began. Local people living in the mountains started to speak of "huge, cat-like" creatures in the area.

The Georgian leopard, Nacres
Many years ago, relatives of African and Asian leopards roamed over Europe
It was enough to get the Noah's Ark Centre for the Recovery of Endangered Species (Nacres) to launch a search project. For years they found nothing.

"After so many years of searching we were almost ready to give up hope we would ever find the leopard here again," Nacres zoologist Levan Butkhuzi told the BBC.

"But once in a while, locals from the high mountainous villages would tell stories about seeing the leopards. We believed the stories less and less, but we kept looking."

Then, in the winter of 2003, Nacres zoologists Bejan Lortkipanidze and George Darchiashvili found some suspiciously large footprints in the Vashlovani Reserve, East Georgia.

The two researchers took plaster copies of the footprints and sent them to an Asian leopard expert for validation.

The results came back positive: without a doubt a leopard was in the area. The leopard - christened Noah after the organisation that found him - was later caught on camera.

Rather alarmingly though, poachers were also photographed.

"We are very afraid that Noah could be killed," said Dr Butkhuzi. "Poaching is a huge problem, and the last leopard we've seen in 1954 was killed by poachers as well."

Nacres is therefore desperate to find the rest of Noah's population and mobilise a protection effort, before the Georgian leopard really does disappear for good.

"We hope that if the public understands how important this discovery is, then we'll be able to keep it," Dr Butkhuzi continued. "This is a real treasure for Georgia and for the Caucasus."

Images by Nacres

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