Providing Wisents for the Vanatori-Neamt Natural Park, Romania
© Martin Wehrle, Tierpark Goldau
To breed and reintroduce European bisons into their former range in Romania
With bulls reaching a shoulder-height of up to 2 m and a body weight of 1000 kg, the wisent, Bison bonasus, a close relative of the American bison, Bison bison, is the largest European mammal surviving in modern times. While the second wild European cattle species, the Aurochs (Bos primigenius), was exterminated in 1627, wisents were still roaming the forests along the border between Poland and the Russian Empire and in the Caucasus at the beginning of the 20th century.
The lowland population, living in the forests of Białowieźa at the Russian-Polish border, numbered 737 wisents at the beginning of World War I. The population suffered severely during the first years of the war, and when, in 1916, the Germans took over the administration of the Białowieźa Forest, only 150 animals were left. Thanks to severe protection the population recovered and 200 animals could be counted in 1918. Regrettably, during the last days of the war, German troops retreating from Russia killed all but about twenty and the remaining animals were hunted to extinction by Polish poachers in the following years. The last Wisent of Białowieźa was killed on February 9, 1921.
In the Caucasus, the wisents were persecuted by Bolshevist revolutionaries The species was namely considered a symbol of oppression because it had been preserved for hunting by the Russian aristocracy. With the killing of the last wild specimen of the mountain population in 1925, the wisent became extinct in the wild.
Fortunately, a small number survived in human care. The then Director of Frankfurt Zoo, Dr. Kurt Priemel, began to inventory these survivors, and by 15 October 1922, he had registered 56 animals (27 males,29 females). From 25 to 26 August 1923, a meeting of the wisent owners was held in Berlin, which resulted in the establishment of the "Internationale Gesellschaft zur Erhaltung des Wisents" (International Association for the Conservation of the Wisent). Kurt Priemel became the first president of the association and Heinz Heck, the future Director of Munich zoo, became the first studbook keeper.
The first International Studbook was published in 1932. After World War II, which severly affected the ex situ wisent populations, the studbook was restored by Dr. Jan Zabinski of the Warszawa Zoo and Dr. Erna Mohr of Hamburg, and was placed under the auspices of the IUDZG (former name of WAZA).
In 1951, there were again 135 captive wisents, 65 in Poland, 22 in the Soviet Union, 24 in three Swedish holdings and another 24 in six European Zoos. As from 1956, wisents have been released to the wild, first at the Polish Białowieski National Park, later also in the Soviet Union. In 1974, the total number exceeded 1500, of which 25 % lived in Zoos, 30 % in other enclosures and 45 % in the wild.
The Wisent is still classified as Endangered by IUCN, although the world population now stands close to 4000 animals. Approximately one third of them lives in the primeval forest of Białowieźa (Poland) and Bieloweskaja (Belarus). Other wild populations exist in other parts of Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine and, extralimitally, Kyrgyzstan. The whole population derives from a founder population of 17 individuals, the Białowieźa/Bieloweskaja population only from 12 individuals.
On May 9, 2005, two wisents from the Goldau Landscape and Animal Park and two more animals from Berne Animal Park were loaded on a lorry decorated with WAZA stickers and were transported to Romania for reintroduction into the 30'800 ha Vanatori-Neamt Natural Park. The first step of the project is to establish a breeding herd in a large enclosure. The progeny from this herd will be used for reintroduction. Small groups of individuals will be annually released to increase the chances of establishing a viable free-ranging population. The project site is located in the Romanian Carpathes, close to the Ukrainian border and to the home range of the largest Ukraininan Wisent herd "Bukovina". This should ensure future interactions between populations. The wisent will serve as a flagship species for conservation and sustainable forestry as part of a wider initiative to restore biodiversity in managed landscapes of mixed forest and meadow ecosystems in conjunction with continued timber production and use of non-timber products. The costs for supplying the four animals are estimated to about. 80'000 CHF for each of the two zoos.
WAZA Conservation Project 05007 is executed by Goldau Landscape and Animal Park and Berne Animal Park "Dählhölzli" in support to the Romanian Biodiversity Conservation Management Project TF 022499-RO. The project is also supported by the Large Herbivore Foundation and the GEF/World Bank.
> to project overview
© Martin Wehrle, Tierpark Goldau