Update: Vladimir Putin has completed his crane-migration stunt. However, results were not terribly impressive: "On his first flight Putin was accompanied by only one of the Siberian white cranes." (The Russian president had been preparing for the motorized-hang-glider flight for about a year and a half.) Furthermore, Guardian contributor Howard Amos notes that, contra earlier reports, "[i]n the end [Putin] didn't have to wear a beak."
This story first appeared on the Guardian website.
He has shot a grey whale with a sample-collecting dart in the Pacific, released leopards in the Caucasus, and "saved journalists from wild tigers." Now Vladimir Putin's latest episode of animal antics takes him into the Siberian skies as a surrogate parent leading a flock of endangered cranes.
The stunt-prone Russian president will personally pilot a motorized hang glider during a stopover in the far north of the country this week on his way to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum in Vladivostok.
There are only 20 Siberian white cranes left in the world. Putin will lead a group of the birds on the first leg of their 5,000-kilometer migration, and, if all goes to plan, they will spend the winter in central Asia.
Six months into his third presidential term and a month from his 60th birthday, Putin will have to don white overalls and a special beak to be recognized by the cranes, Yuri Markin, an ornithologist and director of the Oksk Nature Reserve, where the young birds were raised, told the RBC news website.
Putin has cultivated an image as an animal lover during his time at the top of Russian politics and has even been given a tiger cub as a birthday present.
During a televised phone-in session last year, when he was prime minister, a viewer asked why Putin looked more comfortable with tigers and leopards than his own ministers. "The more I know people, the more I like dogs," Putin replied, paraphrasing the Greek philosopher Diogenes. "I simply like animals."
But observers will be watching the latest stunt carefully for any signs of a setup. There was widespread disbelief in 2008 when Putin appeared to save a television crew from a rare Amur tiger in Russia's far east by shooting it with a tranquilizer gun.
And even the Kremlin's press service was forced to admit last year that footage and photographs of Putin striding away from a dive in the Black Sea having recovered Greek amphorae was planned in advance, with the jars having been planted on the sea floor.
Putin has been undergoing special training to be able to fly the motorized hang glider and will take part in the "Flight of Hope" that begins in the Yamal district of northern Russia as long as the weather is favorable, his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told Russia's Vedomosti newspaper on Wednesday.
After helping the birds on their way, Putin will take a more conventional plane on Friday to Vladivostok, where he will greet heads of state from around Asia and the Pacific at the annual APEC summit, which Russia is hosting.
A row about Putin's date with the endangered cranes was already under way in Moscow before official confirmation of the stunt.
Russia's oldest scientific magazine, Vokrug Sveta, lost its chief editor, Masha Gessen, on Monday after she resisted pressure to send a reporter to cover the event. "I'm leaving Vokrug Sveta #thankstoPutinforthat," Gessen tweeted later that day.
She said that she considered the request to publish material about Putin's involvement with the Siberian white cranes to have been "editorial interference."
The outspoken journalist is also the author of a critical biography about Putin that was released last year with the title The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.
Guided migrations for young birds that would otherwise not know where to go were made famous by the 1996 Hollywood film Fly Away Home, in which a girl befriends a group of geese and overcomes crashes and the loss of her mother to fly a microlight to take them to their wintering grounds.