In 2008, Russian prime minister and current president-elect Vladimir Putin famously tranquilized a wild Amur tiger and helped affix the animal with a GPS collar, an encounter that helped to cement his reputation as a lover of wild animals and notorious he-man. Putin later hosted the 2010 International Forum on Tiger Conservation in St. Petersburg, where the 13 nations with tiger populations declared a shared goal of doubling the world's tiger population by 2022.

But now environmentalists and bloggers in Russia are charging that Putin's tiger darting was faked. They allege that the tiger Putin darted was not wild but came from a zoo and was not a threat to the TV crew on site, as the encounter was originally presented to the public. Even worse, they say the tiger died after the cameras left the scene.

Amur tigers (also known as Siberian tigers) are an endangered tiger subspecies that can only be found in Russia and small portions of China. An estimated 250 to 300 Amur tigers remain in the wild. The total wild population for all tiger subspecies is estimated to be about 3,000 animals.

The evidence dug up by Moscow-based environmentalists is based on examinations of the black, white and orange patterns on the tiger's fur. "The markings on a tiger are as unique as fingerprints — they don't change throughout its life," Vladimir Krever of the World Wildlife Fund's Moscow office told The Guardian.

The environmentalists allege that the tiger was not a wild animal but came from a zoo in Khabarovsk several hundred miles away from where Putin encountered it. Masha Vorontsova, the head of the Russia branch of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told The Guardian that the female tiger was tranquilized three times, not once as was reported, and later died at the Khabarovsk zoo from the tranquilizer overdose. "I'm not even blaming Putin, but the people who do these things for him — all they are interested in is big money. It's against all scientific and human ethics," she said.

The bloggers compared three photos to make their assertions. The first shows a tiger in the zoo before the encounter. The second shows Putin putting the GPS collar around a tiger's neck. The markings on the tigers in the two photos appear to be the same. But the third photo, reportedly showing the tiger that Putin collared back in the wild months after the event, seems to show a tiger with different markings.

Officials denied the charges, calling them politically motivated.

In related news, Russia announced that the Amur tiger will be left off of the next edition of Russia's Red Book, which lists the species that country defines as endangered.

Also on MNN:

Was Vladimir Putin's famous tiger encounter faked?
Bloggers charge it was a PR stunt that resulted in the rare tiger's death.