When the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, kick off with the opening ceremony this Friday, a leopard, a hare, and a polar bear will be among those gathering with athletes, dignitaries, and journalists. But fear not, these four-legged animals are Sochi’s official mascots. Leopards, hares, and polar bears are found in Russia, and each possesses characteristics like speed, strength, and agility—along with a wintery aspect—that suits their inclusion in the Winter Games.
Naturally, in this day and age, the mascots have their own website and a Facebook page that has quickly racked up 20,000 “Likes.” Heck, you can even buy plush toy versions of the mascots on Amazon, and folks have been spotted wearing hare-shaped hats. But what’s so special about these animals? Read on as we introduce the real animals behind Sochi’s mascots.
At some point in the run-up to this year’s Winter Olympics, the leopard on Sochi’s promotional materials went from being a white snow leopard to a more generic tan one. This change is perhaps more inclusive since Russia has historically been home to multiple species of leopards, including the Persian leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor), which once inhabited the Western Caucasus around Sochi and which Vladimir Putin recently vowed to restore to the region.
But the big cat that’s perhaps most winter-appropriate is the snow leopard (Panthera uncia). The cat is found far to the east of Sochi in the mountain ranges of Central Asia. These days, of the approximately 2,000 to 6,000 snow leopards thought to exist, the vast majority are found in China and Mongolia, said James Gibbs, a conservation biologist at State University of New York in Syracuse. Gibbs estimates there are only 20 to 40 snow leopards living in the wild within Russia, although that’s a rough estimate since snow leopards are extremely elusive and roam great distances. (See “Rare Pictures: Snow Leopards Caught in Camera Trap.”)
The snow leopard is officially protected in Russia, so hunting them is illegal. But that doesn’t stop poachers from setting snares, which has had a devastating effect on snow leopard populations.
The cats also face a dwindling supply of prey—primarily a goat relative called the ibex. The ibex fall victim to poaching as well as displacement by livestock, added Gibbs.
While there’s some evidence that the Russian snow leopard population has recovered slightly in the past few years, Gibbs says it remains critical. “I’d say it’s an absolute bare minimum for recovery with some concerted effort,” he said. ”[The population numbers] can’t go much lower before it falls apart.”
The games themselves may provide a glimmer of hope. Gibbs is cautiously optimistic that the attention generated by the Winter Olympics will result in increased efforts to aid the snow leopard.
“I’m extremely hopeful. The more publicity the better,” said Gibbs. “The next step is really difficult: to get good intentions to translate to things on the ground.” Gibbs said that would entail “providing alternative livelihoods and poverty alleviation” to help curb poaching, along with increased patrols and efforts to remove snares, and increased logistical support for biologists.
Contrary to popular belief, hares are not rabbits, although they are related. Hares are generally larger, with longer ears and taller hind legs. Russia is home to several species of hares, including the arctic hare (Lepus arcticus), although this species is more common in North America.
The mountain hare (Lepus timidus) is found all over Russia, from its border with Scandinavia to the farthest reaches of Siberia. The animal is often found at elevations thousands of meters above sea level. It’s normally brown during much of the year, but in the winter months the mountain hare molts until its fur is so white that it resembles the arctic hare. At one point they were considered to be the same species.
While they may not have the brawn of the other mascots on this list, hares are fast, with the ability to move up to 40 miles (60 kilometers) per hour. Further, as a species they’re doing quite well for themselves. The IUCN’s Red List currently lists them as a species of “least concern,” meaning population numbers are doing well. Good news for the mascot and hare fans alike.
The Polar Bear
If wrestling were a winter sport, the polar bear would be a good bet to come away with a medal. Few creatures anywhere can match Ursus maritimus in size and strength. An adult male can weigh up to 1,500 pounds (nearly 700 kilograms).
With a range confined mostly to the Arctic Circle, polar bears generally eat seals, but they have been known to hunt everything from fish and reindeer to geese. Since they’re uniquely adapted to the Arctic environment, polar bears are particularly sensitive to climate change. This has made them an important symbol for the impacts of those changes, said Linda Gormezano, a polar bear researcher with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
“I think it’s great,” Gormezano said of the polar bear’s selection as one of Sochi’s mascots. The negative effects of climate change on the polar bears’ icy habitat is indicative of climate change’s effects on many other species around the world, she added. “So if including polar bears as a mascot brings awareness to this issue, then it’s a good thing for sure.”
The IUCN lists polar bears as “vulnerable,” although some populations are more threatened than others. Like the snow leopard, polar bears in Russia are protected by law but face pressures from illegal poaching as well as changes in their habitat.
So, for the next two weeks while all eyes are trained on the human struggles in figure-skating and snowboarding, I hope people will also spare a thought for Sochi’s wintery mascots and the noble but vulnerable species they represent.
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