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Famous Vladimir Putin tiger photo staged, according to environmentalists

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(AP Photo /RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Pool)

A Russian environmentalist and big cat expert says a famous photograph of Russian Prime Minister/President-Elect Vladimir Putin hovering over a tiger he reportedly shot with a tranquilizer gun may have been staged.

The August, 2008 photo shows Putin inspecting an unconscious five-year-old Ussuri tiger in the wild, while researchers place a tracking device around the tiger's neck. But Dmitri Molodtsov, environmentalist and author of the Russian Big Cats blog, says another picture, showing the tiger back in the wild, appears to have different stripes.

Molodtsov says he now believes the tiger Putin shot wasn't wild at all, but instead a "comparatively docile animal from a zoo," according to the Associated Press. "I thought this to be my civil duty to report this," he said. "I want to live in a country where a politician will know that he can improve his declining ratings only with real deeds."

If true, it wouldn't be the first staged photo session Putin voluntarily participated in to boost his alpha male image. Last year, video footage of Putin supposedly discovering ancient Greek artifacts while diving was revealed to have been staged, when his spokesman Dmitry Peskov admitted the items had been planted on the seabed.

However, Natalya Remennikova, who runs the Amur tiger preservation program at Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution in Moscow, denied Molodtsov's claim.

"Somebody made it up or they thought they saw something suspicious," she told the AP, saying Molodtsov may be trying to "smear" Putin. Of course, it's worth noting that the Russian government funds the institute.

A representative of the Russian branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) seconded Molodtsov's skeptical claim, saying the tiger images posted on Putin's website do appear to show different cats.

"What I have seen online are two different animals," Vladimir Krever told the AP.

Nevertheless, Putin has long been considered an advocate of preserving endangered cats. Fewer than 400 Ussuri, the largest species of tiger, are known to exist in the wild.

In November 2010 Putin called actor Leonardo DiCaprio "a real man" after he donated $1 million to the WWF's tiger conservation program. DiCaprio overcame a rocky flight to Russia, where he was in attendance at a Putin press conference when the Russian leader made the remarks.

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