This Saturday, after 3000 km of travelling, ten more European bison originating from Belgian and German zoos and wildlife centres arrived at the Țarcu Mountains in the southern part of Romania. This group joined the herds Rewilding Europe and WWF Romania released here in 2014 and 2015, making one more step towards creating a viable wild bison population to roam freely in this area after 200 years of absence.
Since 2013, Rewilding Europe and WWF Romania are working together in the Southern Carpathians rewilding area with the aim to bring the European bison back into this wild part of the Carpathian Mountain range.
The release team went through quite a roller-coaster ride in the Țarcu Mountains. The torrential rain the night before left its mark on the forest road and bridge leading to the bison enclosure where the animals are unloaded. The trucks could not be easily manoeuvred to cross the bridge and get the bison out safely. However, with ingenuity and care, the participants made a corridor for the bison to cross the bridge. In less than an hour, a fence was improvised by dismantling three gates using feeders, tape and branches. Two jeeps placed in the firing line of the bison’s horns guided the animals safely out of the trucks.
Bison reintroductions will take place for at least 5 more years as part of the LIFE Project “Urgent actions for the recovery of European bison populations in Romania” (LIFE Bison) financed by the European Commission through the LIFE Programme. In cooperation with the municipalities of Armeniș and Fenes, two villages close to the release site, the first two releases took place in 2014 and 2015.
Frans Schepers, Rewilding Europe’s Managing Director and Adrian Hagatis, Rewilding Europe’s Team Leader for the Southern Carpathians jointly released the animals into a 15 hectare acclimatisation zone on Saturday. The ten bison arrived healthy and well, and will stay in this zone until they have adapted themselves and have formed a social herd structure. Later this summer the herd will enter the adjacent rewilding zone of 150 hectare before joining the other bison already roaming free. Bison will then become full part of the natural ecosystem in this 59 000 hectare large Țarcu Mountains Natura 2000 site.
This third herd consists of bison originating from different European zoos and wildlife centres. Three bison were donated by Bellewaerde park in Belgium, six bison by Wisentgehege bison reserve in Springe, Germany, and one bison by Neumünster wildlife park in Germany hosted for a week by Belgian Han-sur-Lesse wildlife park, a long term partner in the project.
One step closer towards a viable population of European bison in Romania
“The bison have a huge positive impact on the habitat they roam, they help keep a mosaic landscape and maintain ecological corridors,” says Adrian Hagatis, Team Leader of rewilding initiative in the Southern Carpathians.
“These are the first ten out of at least 100 European bison that we will release here during the coming 5 years,” says Frans Schepers, Managing Director of Rewilding Europe. “We are extremely grateful to the zoos and wildlife parks for providing animals and generous support to make this possible, and the European Commission to provide most of the necessary funding.”
Rewilding Europe and WWF Romania have set the objective to create a free-roaming, viable population of at least 190 bison by 2020, further growing towards an estimated 300 in 2024. By bringing back the European bison to this area, a substantial contribution is made towards the conservation of this species in Europe, as laid out in the IUCN Species Action Plan for the European bison. It is also part of a large rewilding initiative in Romania, where Rewilding Europe and WWF Romania work together to create one of the largest contiguous wild areas in Europe numbering some 3 million hectares, connecting various protected areas, core wilderness areas and rewilding zones across the larger, southwestern Carpathians mountain range. This area consists of 6 different Natura 2000 sites and it is here where the European bison will be able to play its important ecological role in its natural habitats.
Coming back, but still vulnerable
The European bison or wisent is the continent’s largest wild land mammal. Once, it roamed all across Europe, except possibly Northern Scandinavia and the southern parts of the Iberian Peninsula and Italy. It was severely hunted by men until it finally became extinct in the wild in 1927. By then, only 54 individuals remained, all in captivity. A slow but successful breeding and reintroduction effort in Central and Eastern Europe helped to establish a wild population again. The global population of the European bison is now said to be 5553 (source EBCC, 2014). Of these, only some 3230 live in free herds and 402 in semi-free herds.
Missing link in the ecosystem
The European bison is a charismatic animal with a long-standing heritage in Romanian history and culture, loved by the public. For restoring European ecosystems such as the Tarçu Mountains, it is important to bring back this symbolic animal as it is a key species for rewilding and for preserving wilderness strongholds. The bison’s grazing and browsing ability helps maintain a mosaic of forest areas and grasslands, creating more variation and structure in the landscape. It is a species that will help maintain the ecological corridors across the entire Carpathian Mountain range and enable natural processes to occur.
Why in the Southern Carpathians?
This area has been one of the core areas for bison since ages back. However, it became extinct here in 1762. The Carpathian Mountains are a priority region for improving the long-term survival of the bison, since there is suitable habitat that is relatively well connected.
A European partnership at all levels
The scale and success of this initiative is possible through the support and hands on involvement of the Municipality of Armeniș, the local community – Armeniș Bison Hillock Association (AMZA), National Forest Administration – ROMSILVA, Teregova Local Forest Management Unit, The Romanian Academy of Science, The Veterinary Universities in Timisoara and Bucharest and the local and national Hunting Associations. Dr. Sebastian Catanoiu and Dr. Razvan Deju, members of the European Bison Conservation Centre (EBCC), provided expert support as they have been leading the first bison reintroduction initiative in Vanatori Neamt Nature Park in Romania.
The bison reintroduction in the Southern Carpathians was made possible by the LIFE Bison project financed by the European Commission through the LIFE programme and generous support of zoos and parks throughout Europe, for which we are extremely grateful.
Next steps for the initiative
Rewilding Europe and WWF Romania are working together to make the Țarcu Mountains a thriving wild area where people benefit from rewilding and wilderness protection. Annual bison releases will help to build up a viable and free-roaming population of this species, in turn providing new opportunities for the local communities, for example, nature-based tourism, wildlife watching and local foods products. Both organisations recently took the first steps towards establishing a bison breeding centre in Romanian Hunedoara Zoo. The first two bison, one male and one female, donated by Bielefeld Zoo in Germany and Han sur Lesse (Grottes de Han) Wildlife Park in Belgium arrived safely this breeding centre at end of May. The female was born in Wisentgehege Springe, bison reserve in Germany, and hosted in Belgium for over a year.
Photos: Frans Schepers / Rewilding Europe