Vlad vs. Wild: Russia’s Vladimir Putin Admits His Crazy Wildlife Stunts Were Setups

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Donning a flight suit and leading six young cranes on their migration home? Hugging giant polar bears in the Arctic? Doesn’t every world leader do these things?

Sadly, the answer appears to be no — not even  Vladimir Putin. According to Reuters, the Russian president admitted to Russian journalist Masha Gessen that his wildlife stunts had been purposely planned to involve the media in an effort to bring awareness to wildlife conservation efforts.

(PHOTOS: Vladimir Putin: Action Figure)

It has, admittedly, been a wild and improbable ride. Over the years he’s been photographed shooting a (“violent”) tiger with a tranquilizer gun, firing a crossbow at a grey whale and tagging and releasing a rare snow leopard (which had been specially brought in). Once, Putin also dived to the bottom of the Black Sea, where he apparently discovered shards of ancient amphorae — although his press secretary later admitted that had been a publicity stunt as well.

Most recently, he hopped onto a glider plane last week to lead six baby cranes to migration. According to Radio Free Europe, not all of the birds were so trusting of their new mother:

When some of [the birds] declined to follow him on his “flight of hope,” he used it as an opportunity to take a swipe at protesters who have demonstrated against his return to the presidency in recent months, describing those who refused to take his lead as “the weak ones.”

(MORE: It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s… Vladimir Putin)

Putin, however, insisted to Gessen, that “Everything I do in this area [wildlife conservation] should have nothing to do with politics. But for a man in my position it is very difficult,” Putin told the journalist. “I like birdies, kitties and little creatures.” More to the point, it’s great for his public image: Putin’s feats of strength have kept his poll numbers reliably high even while an increasing share of the country’s educated elite are tiring of his stronghanded form of government.

Gessen, when asked about the private conversation, told the Wall Street Journal she didn’t take notes during the rendezvous but immediately scribbled it down as soon as the meeting was over. “You can’t make that stuff up,” she said.

Erica Ho is a contributor at TIME and the editor of Map Happy. Find her on Twitter at @ericamho and Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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