From leading a flock of cranes in a motorized hang glider to a possibly faked tiger encounter, Vladimir Putin appears to be adept at staging bizarre, macho, nature-focused photo ops.

But that doesn't mean he's any friend of the environment. In fact, Putin and his political associates have been seizing vast tracts of previously protected land, logging old-growth forests and constructing vast summer palaces.

These activities garnered the attention of a small group of environmental activists, including zoologist and bat expert Suren Gazaryan, who was recently awarded the Goldman Prize for his efforts to protect Russia's wilderness. Gazaryan used social media to bring attention to illegal construction in the ecologically sensitive Western Caucasus, a wilderness area along the Black Sea shores in Russia’s Krasnodar region. Gazaryan and his allies in the green NGO Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC) also put their lives on the line, blocking bulldozers and filming construction at great personal risk to themselves 

The group eventually halted construction on one summer palace intended for then-president Dmitry Medvedev, and later began campaigning against another palace being built for Putin himself. The Russian political climate being what it is, these efforts have cost Gazaryan and his colleagues dearly. In June 2012, Gazaryan received three years probation for a public rally against the illegal seizure of protected forest land. And in August 2012, the Russian authorities charged him for allegedly threatening to kill security guards at an illegal construction site.

Gazaryan was forced to flee to Estonia where he received political asylum. Fast Company reports that one of Gazaryan's colleagues, Yevgeny Vitishko, is currently living in a penal colony, having received a three-year sentence for damaging a fence, meanwhile EWNC recently received notice that it was being shut down by the government and its bank accounts have been blocked. 

Related on MNN:

How a bat expert became Vladimir Putin's nemesis
Powerful Russian elites have been logging old-growth forests for personal gain. One brave zoologist set out to stop them.