VLADIVOSTOK, Russia – Vladimir Putin flew on a motorized hang glider to lead a flock of young Siberian white cranes in flight, a characteristic stunt for Russia's action-man, animal-loving president that was tarnished by reports that endangered chicks had died while scientists were setting up the trip.
Dressed in a white costume meant to imitate an adult crane, Putin was taking part in a project to teach the endangered birds who were raised in captivity to follow the aircraft on their southern migration to Central Asia.
Putin has charmed many Russians while disgusting others with his feats, starting from 2000 when he flew into Chechnya in the back seat of a fighter jet. Over the years, he has ridden a horse bare-chested through the mountains, driven a Formula One race car and taken the controls of a firefighting plane to dump water on wildfires.
The flight in the hang glider proved to be a test of Putin's leadership skills. Only one crane followed Putin on his first flight, which he attributed to high winds that caused the hang glider to travel faster than usual, the RIA Novosti news agency reported. On the second flight, five birds followed Putin, but after a few circles only two had stuck with him for the full 15-minute flight.
Putin stopped off at the Kushavet ornithological research station on the Yamal Peninsula in the Russian Arctic on Wednesday en route to an international summit in Vladivostok, on Russia's Pacific coast. Once at the station, he paired up with a pilot, who sat behind him on the hang glider as they took the birds for a spin.
It was a scene reminiscent of the 1996 movie "Fly Away Home," in which an estranged father and daughter use an ultralight plane to help a flock of geese migrate. The movie was based on a real-life Canadian, who spent a decade teaching orphaned geese how to fly south.
Putin's moment dimmed, however, when a biology student at the station claimed online that two chick cranes died and several others were hurt in the hurry to be ready for Putin's arrival.
"One of the chicks got into a hang glider's propeller while training and waiting for" Putin, Mariya Goncharova wrote on her page on the Russian social netwroking website, vk.ru. "One more broke a beak and stripped its claws off on bad netting, and many simply flayed themselves" while being transported in boxes to the flight venue.
Goncharova deleted the post several hours after posting it, but it remained available on Russian search engines.
A researcher confirmed the death of a three-month-old chick before it was transported to the research station.
"An autopsy will give us the exact cause of death," Tatyana Kashentseva told The Associated Press. She said other birds arrived safely, although it was not clear how many there were.
Russian biologists say there are less than 20 Western Siberian white cranes left in the wild worldwide.
Putin's flight, given many minutes of airtime on Russian television, provoked an array of contemptuous jokes on the Internet, one of the most popular being "So Putin is off to wintering with cranes. Does this mean he's not going to be back before spring?"
Some of Putin's adventures have purported scientific connections, such as when he fired a crossbow at a gray whale while being tossed around in choppy seas to collect tissue samples.
He also once shot a Siberian tigress with a tranquilizer gun so he could place a tracking collar around her neck. He patted the sleeping tiger's cheek affectionately as if she were a pet. A Russian environmentalist claimed later that the tigress died because Putin's security insisted on increasing the dose of the tranquilizer.
After leading the cranes, Putin said he didn't know what he would do next with animals. "That's for the specialists to decide," he said. "It shouldn't be just for fun, but should have some use."
Last year, Putin was caught short when one of his scientific events was revealed to be a set-up. He was shown scuba diving and bringing up fragments of ancient Greek amphorae, but his spokesman Dmitry Peskov later admitted the artifacts had been planted on the sea floor for Putin to grab.
The stunts irritate Putin's opponents, who regard them not as benign political entertainment but as part of an establishment of a cult of personality lionizing an authoritarian leader.
Marat Guelman, one of Russia's most well-known art gallery operators, wrote in a blog on the Ekho Moskvy radio station website that the flight shows Putin "has lost faith in us. He sees our treachery, greed, cowardice and cruelty. There's nothing to love in us anymore. Dolphins, cranes, horses — that's a different thing."
Masha Gessen, author of a book critical of Putin, left her post as editor of the travel and science magazine Vokrug Sveta (Around the World) this week, saying she was fired for refusing to send a reporter to the Yamal Peninsula, 3,500 kilometers (2,200 miles) northeast of Moscow, to cover Putin's flight with the cranes.
A statement from the magazine Tuesday said Gessen left by agreement with management because of "differences" on the separation of editorial and publishing powers.
Vokrug Sveta works closely with the Russian Geographical Society, whose board of trustees is chaired by Putin.
Mansur Mirovalev contributed to this report from Moscow.