MOSCOW – He's driven a big truck, flown in a Russian fighter jet and fished shirtless on national television.
Now comes Vladimir Putin's latest image-boosting escapade, a visit to a Russian wildlife preserve that gave him the chance to wear camouflage, stalk through the woods and shoot a tiger — all for a good cause.
Russia's state-run television showed footage Monday of the tough-talking prime minister's visit to the Far East, home of the rare Ussuri tiger. Russian media reports said Putin aided a program to track the tigers by shooting a 5-year-old female cat with a tranquilizer gun after it had freed itself from a restraint.
The televised footage showed Putin, deep in the woods, placing a collar with a tracking device around the knocked-out tiger's neck and patting its cheek like a pet. "She'll remember us," he said.
"The Ussuri tiger is a unique animal — it's the biggest cat on the planet," Putin said later, according to the daily Izvestia.
Fewer than 400 Ussuri tigers — also known as Siberian, Amur or Manchurian tigers — are believed to survive in the wild, most of them in Russia and some in China. They are the largest tiger species, weighing up to 600 pounds.
Human settlements have encroached on the cats' habitat, and they also are in danger from poachers who want hides and bones for traditional Chinese medicine.
Putin, who has mostly been seen lately lashing out at the West over the crisis in Georgia, praised the United States for involvement in efforts to preserve the species.
In eight years as president, the popular Putin burnished his image with televised appearances that painted him as a tough, healthy and energetic young leader eager to take on new challenges.
He became prime minister in May, after protege Dmitry Medvedev took over as president.