EUROPEAN BISONAND ITS ROLE IN   

          RESTORATION OF ECOSYSTEMS


The European bison is the only species of the subfamily Bovine in Europe that survived in the wild until now. For most nations, the European bison was not only a hunted species. This mighty and beautiful animal personified the power of nature, had traditional cult significance and was worshiped as one of the symbols of the motherland. The European bison is an integral part of leafed forest and forested steppe biomes, and reestablishing its wild populations is one of the necessary conditions for restoring the natural ecosystems in Europe with all their components.

History of the species:


During the Holocene period, European bison were spread all over the continent. In the early Holocene European bison also occurred in some regions of the Asiatic part of the Russian Federation. This magnificent animal inhabited the steppes and plains of Europe and dwelt among the Iberian Peninsula.


Human activity, namely unregulated and uncontrolled hunting as well as destruction of habitats through cutting and burning of forests, caused the extinction of the European bison in nature. There is also evidence of a mass die-off of European bison in various parts of the range from infections transmitted by livestock such as foot–and–mouth disease and the Siberian plague. One of the most important factors in decreasing the number of European bison was unlimited, unsustainable harvest of these animals during times of war, upheaval and revolution. Historical records mark declines in the number of bison precisely during these periods.

      I am a bison, zubr for Poles, the Germans call me bison, the ignorants call me uro.

The last wild population of the species (Bialowieza and West Caucasian) were destroyed in the early XX century. Thus, by 1927, the bison in the nature was completely destroyed.


B 1926 worldwide in private collections and zoos survived only 52 wisents. This kind of wisent survived, thanks to 14 of them that were able to reproduce.

 

It took nearly 70 years of breeding – first in zoos and special breeding stations, then in the wild – in order to increase the number of animals from 48 (1927) to 3,418 in 1993 (European Bison Pedigree Book, EBPB).

However, by 31 December 1999 there were only 2,915 European bison: 1,177 in captivity (EBPB, 2000) and 1,738 in the wild. According to the EBCC, by March 2014 the population of european bisons has increased to 5553.

The first stage of European bison conservation has been completed by now: there is no short–term threat of extinction of this species. However, this species is still characterized as endangered (EN) by criteria C (decreasing number and fragmentation of populations) and E (rapid decrease in total species number) by IUCN (1996).

By now, the European continent has lost an essential part of its biological diversity and the prevention of further degradation and the restoration of initial ecosystems is a priority task for the states in the region.

Most difficulties are encountered in conservation and restoration of populations of large mammals, including the European bison – the largest ungulate species in Europe. Currently habitats suitable for the European bison in central and southern Europe are virtually destroyed because of the fact that, lying in fertile plains and low hills, they were also optimal for human development. Only a mosaic of small patches retained until now. In general, the current mega population of the European bison has irreversibly lost around 50% of the gene pool of the founders.

Reintroduction of the European bison is necessary for increasing the number of the species and restoration of its role in the ecosystems, which would increase their biodiversity, productivity and stability.

Certain features of species:

The European bison  is the largest  from cloven-hoofed animals. The shoulder height of an adult male reaches 185, sometimes 2 meters, with a body weight of 400–920, and sometimes up to 1200 kilograms ( Flerov, 1932; Krasinska, 1988). Females are a bit smaller.

Wisent diet contains about 30% of underbrush and bark. Bison eat about 350 species of plants. Adult bison eats in a year almost 4,000 kg. branches, leaves, shrubs, ultimately, wood residues and this fact makes it as the exceptional ally for the recovery of the biodiversity.

Bison is the gregarious animal and spends all year round in the community a few of their own kind of different sexes and ages. The males are kept in herd of up to 4 years of age, and then they are separated. Females start breeding on average at 3 years of age and males at 4 years. Adult males join the herd only during mating season, which occurs in July - September.

Females give birth to usually one calf every 3 years. Life expectancy may reach 20–22 and up to 28 (in females) years.

European bison are tolerant to low temperatures and an abundance of blood–sucking parasites. In wintertime they easily switch from drinking water to snow (Shumov et al., 1998).

Predators basically do not affect bison. Theoretically they may cause damage to the population when calves are born.

The bison needs our forests and our forests needs the bison!

At the turn of the millennia humankind is considering a new strategy of sustainable development based on a transition from the technological to an ecological path. Great attention justifiably is paid to nature conservation. Conservation and restoration of rare and endangered animal and plant species listed in the Red Data Books should become an obvious priority.

The bison recovery is tied to the recovery of habitats and would need new enclaves to live and multiply the specie. One would like to believe that the European bison will re–occupy its ecological niche in the wild due to the joint efforts of scientists, conservationists and the broad public.

Partial text: STRATEGY FOR CONSERVATION OF THE EUROPEAN BISON IN THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION; WWF, Russian Academy of Sciences

All photos in this page: I. Shpilenok

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