European bison, or Wisent, were brought to the Studen Kladenets Game Reserve in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria at the end of October. This is the first step of the first reintroduction of European bison into the Rhodopes, an area which is one of the first members of the European Rewilding Network.
The nature in the Eastern Rhodopes is still quite wild and it is one of the top biodiversity hot spots in Europe. The area has also been nominated to the Rewilding Europe initiative and will hopefully soon become one of the ten areas to further develop into magnificent wildlife and wilderness areas of international quality in Europe. The reintroduction of the European bison is part of the efforts from the so called “New Thracian Gold” project, which has the aim to protect and re-wild nature in this part of Europe, combined with development of eco-tourism and organic farming.
The bison that are now in the Studen Kladenets Reserve were transported here from Germany (Wisentgehege Springe and Wisentgehege Hardehausen). At start, they will be kept in a wide enclosure and later, after a year of successful acclimatization to the conditions here, the animals will be released completely into the wild. In spring 2014, tourists from Bulgaria and abroad are encouraged to visit the area, watch the animals and enjoy all the other attractive features of the Studen Kladenets Reserve: wildlife watching and photography, hiking, boat trips, The Studen Kladenets area already has one of the largest free-ranging populations of fallow deer in Europe, a native species here, and they have now begun to slowly re-colonize the surrounding parts of the Eastern Rhodopes. Red deer are also being reintroduced in the Reserve and this year saw the first few new-born red deer fawns in the region.
The local team is convinced that the European bison will be one of the great ecosystem attractions of the Studen Kladenets Reserve and that it might become the new wildlife symbol of the Eastern Rhodopes, next to the wild horses that were reintroduced to the area of Krumovgrad already in 2011, which have successfully adapted to living in the wild in the Rhodopean nature.
This Bison reintroduction was initiated by New Thracian Gold – Bulgaria Foundation, in partnership with the Dutch organization ARK Nature and the Union of the Hunters and Fishermen of Bulgaria, and with the financial support of America for Bulgaria Foundation.
The European bison, which somewhat resembles its more well-known North American cousin, is the largest wild land mammal in Europe alive today, and a key species to create and to keep open gallery forest and grassland ecosystems. It went extinct in the wild in Europe in 1927, mainly due to very severe hunting pressure over centuries. From Bulgaria, it disappeared already during the Middle Ages. After a large-scale breeding and reintroduction programme based on the few individuals remaining in captivity, wild populations have now been re-established in some areas in central and eastern Europe, with a main stronghold in Poland and Belarus. A small herd of European bison was also reintroduced in the 1960s to a hunting reserve in Northern Bulgaria. European bison – beside Eurasian beaver and White-tailed eagle – has been highlighted as species that have made a remarkable comeback in Europe over the past 50 years, according to the first ever in-depth report on Wildlife Comeback in Europe released last September. Currently, about 2,700 bison are living in the wild. Much rarer than the black rhino in Africa!
The European bison is a flagship species within the Rewilding Europe initiative. In June 2012, Rewilding Europe commissioned the development of a European Bison Action Plan which will soon be ready.In the Rewilding Europe vision, large herds of bison will once again roam in Europe, living side by side with other keystone species like wild horses, aurochs and deer, and also predators like the wolf. Rewilding Europe intends to help bring the bison back to several of its rewilding areas, and would like to see new, strong and free-living bison populations all across its former range.