Sometimes I feel like a modern cowboy, or as someone once told me: a bison boy. This November, I ‘rounded-up’ two bison in Switzerland and transported them in my big trailer to Belgium; one of many small actions, but part of a much larger operation. Rewilding Europe has an ambitious plan to have breeding herds of bison grazing in several of its rewilding areas in eight years. But where do all these bison come from?
We all know the images of huge herds of American bison or buffalo, as they are also called, on rolling grasslands as far as the eye can see from North America. Strange actually, that almost every European knows the American bison but hardly any European knows their own bison; even though it is the biggest land mammal in Europe! Is it the influence of Hollywood? When I was a young boy I loved watching western movies and dreamt of being a cowboy. I am sure I was not the only one. That is how I was introduced to the buffalo and most probably you too.
If it is up to Rewilding Europe, you will soon no longer have to hop over the ocean to see the magnificent spectacle of big herds of bison. It will soon be possible on our own continent, even if it is with it’s cousin – the European bison, also called wisent. But before we can make this happen, we first have to work hard to gather and ‘round- up’ the existing bison from the many wildlife parks and zoos throughout Europe.
The Wisent ones roamed Europe from Russia to Spain and from Sweden to the Caucasus. The species had an important role in the formation of the prehistoric European broad-leaf forest and grassland ecosystems by grazing, browsing, trampling and defecating. They lived in very large herds of thousands of animals, maybe even millions. Hunted intensively by mankind from a very early age, bison numbers quickly dropped. As the hunter/gatherers settled down and started to farm, the few remaining bison were primarily killed to prevent damage to crops, and at the end they were hunted as exclusively ‘Royal Game’.
By that time, habitat fragmentation, warfare and overhunting had already lowered the bison numbers to dangerously low levels. Royal hunting grounds, like the Białowieża forest, hunting ground of Lithuanian kings and the Russian Tsars, were the last strongholds for the bison, protecting them from poachers. In the beginning a nobleman would show his courage by killing a bison from horseback with a spear. Later kings and tsars enjoyed the hunt from a more luxurious position. Being seated in a chair the bison where forced towards the Tzar by local villagers who were forced by the thousands to participate in these Royal hunts, allowing the Tsar to fire his gun at the passing bison.
Bison poaching was a risky activity – if caught you faced a death sentence. But that did not stop people from poaching bison and the severe punishments and the ‘Royal’ protection could not prevent the bison numbers from dropping further. It was the warfare of the First World War and the Russian revolution and the following political instability that allowed heavy poaching that finally killed the last free-living bison in 1919 in Białowieża and 1927 in the West-Caucasus. The curtain had finally fallen for the last surviving bison in the wild.
Luckily the bison survived in captivity thanks to a few European zoos. Together there were only 54 (29 males and 25 females), all originating from 12 ancestors. The International Society for protection of European Bison, established in 1923 in Germany, took the lead in the restoration of the species. The statute of the Society included the maintenance of European bison by planned breeding and distribution, followed by introductions to large forest complexes. The work of the society was successful and soon the European bison population in captivity started to grow again.
Poland had an especially strong role in the restitution of the species. The first reintroduction of European bison to forest ecosystems started in Białowieża forest in 1952, followed by re-introductions in other areas in Poland and in several other countries. Today the world population is about 4.500 animals, ca 1.500 in captivity and ca 3.000 semi-wild or wild. Different herds are scattered throughout mainly Eastern Europe and there is no genetic exchange between the herds. Only 3 herds of bison have more then 100 individuals. The bison is clearly not out the danger zone yet.
As a comparison, it is still more endangered than the black rhino of Africa. After more then 60 years of restoration of the bison, it can be concluded that progress has been made but numbers are still too low. Rewilding Europe wants to bring a change for the bison by preventing all killing (called “culling”) of bison and allowing the number of free-living bison to grow much faster than in the last 60 years.
Bringing back bison is clearly not ‘just’ about bison. It is more about people, even mostly about people. Local people have to see that bringing back bison is a good idea and will bring benefits, income, pride and joy to them. This sometimes takes time, it means starting partnerships and friendships that rely on trust.
However, a bigger problem seems to be the authorities that have to understand their role and be more supportive and give permits for bringing back the bison. This also takes time but in the mean time we have started the ‘round up’ and we are establishing breeding groups, working together with genetic experts like Wanda Olech and with several bison breeding centres throughout Europe. Acclimatisation and breeding enclosures then need to be built locally, in the reintroduction areas, to which the bison will be released in the future. As soon as these areas are ready, we want the bison to be ready too!
Co-operation and good partnership with bison breeding centres is essential for this; partnership that consists of trust but also of friendship and dedication. I have worked with bison for many years and I have also worked already many years with Etienne Brunelle, manager of the wildlife park Han-sur-Lesse (Belgium), one of the participating breeding centres. Etienne has provided many animals for different re-introduction projects over the years to me and our co-operation has grown into strong friendship. It is these kind of partnerships that consist of friendship that turn dedication into success in the field. When I asked Etienne to enlarge his breeding group so extra surplus animals can be donated for Rewilding Europe, he did not even hesitate but immediately agreed. So a few weeks ago we drove to Bern in Switzerland to ‘round-up’ two bison (a young male and female). They have now joined the existing group at Han-sur-Lesse and hopefully we will have a new generation of bison waiting to be rewilded soon.
It will take a lot more ‘round-ups’ and transports like this one, but all this work and dedication from many partners will pay off in the coming years when you will visit one of the rewilding areas and see the bison as far as the eye can see; just like in the movies.