The European Bison: Back from the Brink of Extinction

This article by Emilie Torgemen in the Parisien is something of a good news story, outlining the French role and French perspectives on the successful reintroduction of the European bison to its natural habitat.

Article source: "Biodiversité : comment le bison d’Europe a été sauvé de l’extinction", Emilie Torgemen, le Parisien, 09/01/2021.

Herds grazing peacefully in prairies... the image brings to mind the American Far West. However, the (misnamed, ed.) “buffalo” of the American Western has a cousin, the biggest Old World mammal: the European bison, which was once close to extinction. The massive animal has just been removed from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Florian Kirchner, head of the French branch of the IUCN, says: “This is very good news. This is proof that biodiversity can reassert itself, even in seemingly hopeless situations, provided that concerted and long-term efforts are made.”

Almost Extinct after WWI

In fact, a hundred years ago, the European bison was almost extinct in the wild. The Slavic bison lineage had already disappeared, and only a handful from the Caucasian lineage remained. In 1927, the species could only be found in zoos: a mere 29 males and 27 females were catalogued. Human activity has progressively encroached on pastures and wooded areas, which are essential for the survival of bison. They were also the victims of significant hunting for meat or simply as trophies.

In Poland and in Russia, they were reserved “royal game” and during a long period of history poaching bison was an offence that carried the death penalty. However, the Russian Revolution and World War I destroyed this fragile protective measure.

First Reintroduction Attempts

“It was in 1952 that the first wave of reintroduction occurred in the Białowieża old-growth forest located on the border between Poland and Belarus. Today, friends tell me that, on the Belarusian side, there are roughly 2050 of these European bison divided among eleven different herds. This beautiful animal has become a source of pride for locals and for the whole country,” said a cheerful Gilbert Cochet, author of the French book on biodiversity, L’Europe réensauvagée.

This first attempt at reintroduction was not entirely crowned with success. The groups, which were too small and potentially inbred, were prone to disease. In the 2000s, countries, NGOs, and zoos made a collective effort to boost the numbers of new individuals born in captivity being reintroduced into their natural environment.

French Collaboration in the Second Wave

This time, the considerable conservation effort paid off. Back in 2019, three French zoological parks contributed to the initiative by shipping a group of bison to Azerbaijan. These pioneers have all been vaccinated and some of them have been equipped with a tracker. They have been tasked with repopulating the Shahdag natural park in Azerbaijan.

Two former residents of the Pescheray zoo (Sarthe, France) – a male called Carpate and a female called Liniwa, both weighing between 500kg and a tonne, made the journey. Anthony Cirefice, head of the zoological park, says this required “crazy logistics. It was a three-day journey, they first travelled 560 miles – partly by road – to Frankfurt where they took the plane.” Then, it was necessary to acclimatise them by moving them from a pen to a valley before setting them free. He proudly adds, “Everything’s going well. Three calves have been born and Carpate, the bison that comes from Sarthe, has already reproduced.” More generally, populations have more than tripled from 1800 individuals in 2003 to over 6200 in 2019, spread over 47 herds.

Still "Near Threatened"

Population growth remains steady, but the species remains fragile and is thus classified as “Near Threatened.” Bison have been reintroduced in forests in which they cannot find enough sustenance in winter, and when they venture out of the woods, they can wreak havoc in surrounding fields. “They are often in conflict with humans. In order to reduce this risk and their reliance on complementary feeding, it is essential that we create protected areas in which they can graze on open pastures,” explains Dr. Rafał Kowalczyk, a member of the Species Survival Commission group specialising in bison at the IUCN.

Bison in France?

What about France? “We could absolutely reintroduce this beautiful animal in the Jura, the Massif Central and even in the Alps. There's no shortage of space. In people's minds, though, it's a different story,” believes Béatrice Kremer-Cochet who, along with her husband, campaigns for the liberation of forests from human influence. The IUCN went back 500 years but could not find any records of French bison. Yet it is certain that they once roamed the South of France. After all, almost 40,000 years ago, prehistoric people painted them on the walls of the Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche.

31 Extinctions in 2020

However, even though the European bison is recovering, 31 species became extinct in 2020, according to the IUCN’s new Red List. “The picture is very bleak for biodiversity. Once a species disappears, it’s over, even though nature is very resilient,” says the IUCN’s Florian Kirchner.

Out of the 128,000 animal and plant species catalogued by the IUCN, 35,000 are considered endangered. This list includes the aptly named “lost shark” that lives in the South China Sea, 17 freshwater fish species native to Lake Lanao in the Philippines, as well as three Central American frog species. Causes include: pollution, overfishing, competition with invasive species, etc.

Translated by Hugo Chaumette and Quentin Hanot

Editing by Sam Trainor

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