When the 2014 Winter Olympics begin next month in the Russian city of Sochi, it will feature three cuddly animal mascots, including the appealing -- but endangered -- snow leopard.
This is welcome, says James P. Gibbs at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, N.Y., even though snow leopards have never lived in the Sochi region on the Black Sea.
Its home region is 3,000 miles away in the remote, mountainous Altai Region of Siberia.
Still, poaching has nearly brought the leopards to the edge of extinction, so anything to put them before the public is beneficial, Gibbs said.
"It's just fantastic that the snow leopard is being featured as the mascot of the Sochi Olympics," he said in a SUNY release Monday. "The creature does need all the attention it can get. It is extremely endangered throughout its range."
Poachers target snow leopards because their luxurious pelts can fetch thousands of dollars in big cities such as Moscow and Beijing.
Gibbs, who has been involved in snow leopard research and conservation efforts in Russia for the last five years, says collaborative efforts by conservation biologists from the United States and Russia have made some progress.
"Five years ago, I would've said it's hopeless but now we're finding ways to control poaching and provide economic opportunities for desperately poor local herders as alternatives to poaching," he said.