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Putin gets to grips with polar bear during visit to Russian outpost

Vladimir Putin managed to combine his macho image with a environmental message yesterday, when he helped Russian scientists put an electronic tag on a 231kg polar bear.

"The polar bear is in danger. There are only 25,000 individuals left in the world," the Russian Prime Minister told reporters. "Receding ice caps, the melting of ice in this region of the world – all this adds to complications for the bears' habitat."

After being briefed by the leader of a Russian Geographical Society expedition on the dangers faced by the species, he went outside to be photographed, helping the scientists weigh, tag and shake the paw of the sedated polar bear.

"The paw shake was strong," the smiling 57-year-old premier said, decked out in a red polar jacket and a cap bearing Russia's national symbol, the two-headed eagle. "It is clear he is the real Lord of the Arctic."

Mr Putin was visiting Franz Josef Land, a frozen archipelago inside the Arctic Circle, 600 miles from the North Pole, inhabited only by polar bears, the scientists who study them, and a small battalion of border guards.

Known for taking an unsentimental approach to foreign and domestic politics, Putin might seem an unlikely environmentalist. But he has often let a soft spot for nature show though his steely exterior.

In the past he has been pictured on Siberian ponies and dived in a submarine to the floor of Lake Baikal, the world's deepest freshwater lake. On another memorable occasion, he "saved" a group of scientists by shooting a Siberian tiger with a tranquilizer gun after it escaped from its handlers.

No such heroics were on display this time, but like all Putin photo opportunities, this one was heavily choreographed. According to one Russian paper the polar bear, which is the symbol of Mr Putin's United Russia party, was apparently captured specially for his visit.

But the Prime Minister's affection for animals sometimes gets the better of him. At a press conference last year said that "the better I know people, the more I like dogs," before quickly back-pedalling when asked if he was talking about his ministers.