From The Breeding Nursery To The Forests
Russian scientists’ efforts targeted to recover European bison (Bison bonasus) which are exterminated everywhere have succeeded. According to the results of the all-Russian accounting of the bison quantity, their population has grown by 20% within the last five years. Herds of these relic ungulates living at large is a dream that has good chances to come true.
The last wild bison were exterminated by 1927, only 48 animals remained scattered all over the Zoos of different countries, although in former times they used to reign in the forest expanses of Europe. It took about seventy years of rearing – first in the zoological gardens, then in the breeding nurseries in the natural environment to recover the species. Thanks to the scientists’ effort, by the end of the 20th century bison all over the world numbered almost three thousand, out of which 1,738 bison lived in free populations in Poland and the former USSR. The international community of researchers involved in the species recovery has won the victory: no longer is there a threat of extinction to the bison.
Nevertheless, it is premature to rest on our laurels as the species can not exist without assistance from people. The major problem the species faces is the deficiency of genetic diversity. All contemporary bison originate from only twelve bulls, this number being too small. Forced to interbreed with near relations, bison produce weakened posterity. Thoroughbred bison in Russia are now 350 in number– these are the counting results published at the research-and-practical conference in the Prioksko- terraced preserve. However, the rescue of bison can be ensured only by establishment of large free populations containing a thousand of animals or even more.
After the Soviet Union disintegrated, Russia was left without bison. All the results of Soviet zoologists’ laborious efforts remained in other countries – in the Ukraine and Byelorussia, and only a few small groups – in the Caucasus. Fighting against poaching particularly when social conflicts and real wars take place is a hard job!
Therefore, Russia has to start from scratch, since appropriate territories remained intact. Zoologists focused on the Central regions of Russia. Researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences together with the specialists from WWF Russia and federal task group for bison developed the Bison conservation strategy in Russia approved by the Ministry of Natural Resources of the Russian Federation. The aim of the strategy is to create at least two large bison populations, their quantity making a thousand of animals each.
One of such populations is supposed to be distributed in the forests of the Orel, Bryansk and Kaluga Regions. The first reintroduction center has become the national park “Orlovskoye Polesie (marshy woodlands)”. In 1996, zoologists started to bring bison there from the breeding grounds, in 1998 the first bison baby appeared, and now they are born every year. The zoos of other countries – the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and Belgium – have presented Russia with 61 bison to enrich the gene pool.
The “Orlovskoye Polesie (marshy woodlands)” has now more than 70 bison living at large, and the “Kaluzhskie Zaseki (abatis)” preserve is populated by 20 bison. Eight bison live in the Murom game reserve (Vladimir Region). The researchers assume that the above bison groups will settle in a new place, contact each other, make mixed marriages, thus forming the first large stable Russian population.
The specialists have not determined yet the location for the second large population. Many years ago, several bison were released in the Vologda Region, and so far they have lived there at large. However, doubts exist whether it is worth creating a large herd in that region, as the winters are too snowy there – efforts for getting forage would not be compensated by the calories contained in it.
“The most trouble is given by the bison that arrived from abroad, says Olga Pereladova, manager of the WWF of Russia. They are absolutely not afraid of people and are extremely fond of comfort. One of such herds released in the Bryansk Region was tempted by free forage and cosy cow-sheds of the neighboring Ukraine and flatly refused to leave for the forests. The bison that had not perished from Ukrainian poachers and returned to the farm in the Bryansk Region had to be taken back to the breeding ground. There is one remedy for such situations: to release not only young bison, but also old females accustomed to semi-free life in the forest. Bison stick to matriarchy, and a wise female leader will certainly walk off the entire herd farther on from people.”
According to the WWF estimates, within the next 15-20 years, implementation of the bison preservation strategy in Russia will require at least $50 to $60 thousand annually. Where can this money be taken from? Till recently, the majority of actions has been paid for via foreign fund, but now the situation is different. Local regional authorities allocate money for bison transportation and forage. Russian sponsors provide a lot of assistance: in 2003-2004 $19,000 was funded by the Russian company “Multon” which is famous for its juices branded “Rich”. In addition, individual WWF advocates in Russia invest their money in the bison recovery program.
Bison is a native Russian animal, recovery of its population in Russia is not only a complicated task but also a prestigious and prospectively profitable business as it will attract to Russia tourists and hunters from all over the world. “If acclimatization of bison is successful, believes Olga Pereladova, then it will be possible and necessary in some areas to shoot off the bison population redundancy within 5 to 7 years.”
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