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Follow the leader.

It's a bird ... it's a plane ... it's Russian President Vladimir Putin helping young white Siberian cranes to find their migration route.

Hacks couldn't resist the Superman allusions after Putin took to the air in a motorized hang glider in September to direct a flock of the endangered birds southward to their wintering grounds in Iran and India. Wearing white overalls and big black goggles, the former KGB agent piloted a lightweight deltaplane with the assistance of a seasoned pilot, Igor Nikitin. The flight was the latest wildlife stunt for Putin, who has sought to craft a rugged outdoorsman persona through frequent photo-ops of him fly fishing, horseback tiding, admiring elusive snow leopards and polar bears, and tracking tigers.

Macho stunts by Putin, who turned 60 in October, once helped his image as a can-do type of guy. But since Russia's reform movement took off in the spring of 2012, such outings have become fodder for the country's political satirists. On the morning of Putin's crane flight, a cartoon making fun of Putin's latest wildlife adventure lit up the Russian Internet. It portrayed Putin in a black suit with grey wings fixed to his hands, telling three birds: "Let's assign roles right away--I am the alpha-crane!"

The Russian president almost suffered an embarrassment when only one of the cranes followed his glider on its first ascent. It took a second flight before the rest of the flock followed along. Putin blamed strong winds for the initial failure of the birds to fly with him. [degrees]'They got used to it," Putin said after the second trip. "They are not afraid."

Hunters in Central Asia have driven the white Siberian crane to the edge of extinction. The young cranes that Putin helped direct had been born in captivity and raised by a conservation project located on the banks of the Siberian Ob River. A program called "Flight of Hope" then used the lightweight gliders to prepare them for their migration southward. After his flight, Putin donated the hang glider, which his spokesman said he had purchased with his own money, to the crane conservation group.


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Title Annotation:Europe; Vladimir Putin leads migration route for Siberian cranes
Publication:Earth Island Journal
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Dec 23, 2012
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