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Siberian Tiger That Putin Helped Free Flees Russia, Swims Across River to China

“If necessary, we can release cattle into the region to feed it."

FILE - In this Aug. 31, 2008 file photo, then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, left, holds a head of a tranquilized five-year-old Siberian tiger as researchers put a collar with a satellite tracker on in a Russian Academy of Sciences reserve in Russia's Far East. A rare Siberian tiger released into the wild by Russian President Putin has strayed into China and may be in danger, state media said Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014. The president was photographed in May releasing the 19-month-old cub, named Kuzya, and two other Siberian tigers in a remote part of the Amur region. (AP Photo/Alexei Druzhinin, Pool, File) AP Photo/Alexei Druzhinin, Pool, File

Less than a week after admiring fans hosted a bizarre birthday celebration for him, Russian President Vladimir Putin faced the high-profile defection of one of his beloved comrades.

The defector's destination: China.

The defector's identity: Kuzya, a 23-month-old Siberian tiger.

Kuzya being released into the Russian wild. (Image via M. Booth, International Fund for Animal Welfare) Kuzya being released into the Russian wild. (Image via M. Booth, International Fund for Animal Welfare)

Kuzya, orphaned by poachers almost two years ago, had been raised in an enclosure in Russia until being released into the Russian Far East recently, the New York Times reported.

Putin had personally pulled the rope that freed Kuzya, the Times noted, yet the tiger showed little loyalty to Mother Russia, swimming across the Amur River last Tuesday and entering China.

The Amur River separates eastern Russia from northern China. (Image via Wikimedia Commons) The Amur River separates eastern Russia from northern China. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

It's a dangerous move for the animal.

While the Russian Far East is home to several hundred tigers, China holds fewer than two dozen wild tigers, the Times reported.

Putin has led an aggressive wildlife preservation campaign aimed at reducing poaching, making the sparsely populated Russian Far East a much more hospitable place for tigers than the densely populated northern China, where the animals that tigers eat are scarce and poachers can get around $10,000 for a tiger carcass, the Times noted.

In this Aug. 31, 2008 file photo, then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, left, holds a head of a tranquilized five-year-old Siberian tiger as researchers put a collar with a satellite tracker on in a Russian Academy of Sciences reserve in Russia's Far East. A rare Siberian tiger released into the wild by Russian President Putin has strayed into China and may be in danger, state media said Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014. The president was photographed in May releasing the 19-month-old cub, named Kuzya, and two other Siberian tigers in a remote part of the Amur region. (AP Photo/Alexei Druzhinin, Pool, File)

Apparently worried by the prospect of an international incident should Kuyza perish on Sinic soil, Chinese officials promised to track and guard the tiger.

“We will make joint efforts with the Russian side to carry out protection of wild Siberian tigers which travel back and forth between China and Russia,” Hong Lei, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in a statement.

“If necessary, we can release cattle into the region to feed [Kuzya],” nature reserve director Chen Zhigang told state media last week.

Chinese authorities, after setting up dozens of cameras in the Amur area, had picked up Kuzya's trail over the weekend, USAToday reported, but the tiger's fate remains in limbo — and it's unclear whether the animal lover Putin will ever see the beast return to its native Russia.

“There is still hope that Kuzya will be sensible and swim back before the river turns to icy slush,” the newspaper Novaya Gazeta reportedly wrote last week.

Follow Zach Noble (@thezachnoble) on Twitter

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