Georgian billionaire ex-PM stirs ire for shifting tree by ship


Tbilisi (AFP)

Georgia's eccentric billionaire, former premier Bidzina Ivanishvili, has come under fire from environmentalists for uprooting a rare giant tree and transporting it by boat to his private park.

The startling transplant was the latest eye-catching extravagance from the tycoon, who has repeatedly wowed his tiny homeland by amassing a priceless art collection, building a futuristic palace overlooking the capital and establishing his own private zoo.

Surreal video footage of the 650-tonne tulip tree sailing upright 40 kilometres (25 miles) along the Black Sea coast went viral on social media in the ex-Soviet country, ahead of it being replanted on Ivanishvili's estate Monday.

Local residents have staged protests in Tsikhisdziri village in western Georgia where the tree was uprooted last week.

Environmentalists accused Ivanishvili of causing serious damage to the ecosystem during the tree's removal and expressed fears that it was doomed to wither after replanting.

"There are only a few dozen tulip trees in Georgia and this majestic 135-year-old specimen has zero chances of surviving replanting," activist Nata Peradze from Guerrilla Gardeners environmentalist group told AFP.

"Most importantly, excavation works have seriously damaged unique flora in the tree's original location," she said.

Ivanishvili has defended his project, saying he "purchased the tree legally."

"Giant trees are my hobby. I am developing a park where I think it is appropriate," he said in televised remarks.

The reclusive, yoga-loving billionaire rose from dire poverty to the pinnacle of power in the tiny Caucasus nation.

Few people even knew what he looked like until he burst onto Georgia's political scene in 2011 and the next year ousted from power the seemingly unbeatable then-ruling party of his nemesis, pro-Western ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili.

He resigned as prime minister in 2013 and retreated to his mansion overlooking the capital Tbilisi, which houses an aquarium teeming with sharks.

But he is still widely believed to call the shots in Georgian politics.

At one of his other villas on Georgia's Black Sea coast Ivanishvili keeps a private collection of exotic animals, including zebras, kangaroos and penguins.