Providing Wisents for Poloniny National Park, Slovakia
© Martin Wehrle, Tierpark Goldau
To breed and reintroduce European bisons into their former range in Slovakia
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.
In June 2004 three WAZA Member institutions provided altogether five wisents for reintroduction into Poloniny National Park in the Carpathian Mountains. The animals were released under the authority of the State Nature Conservancy of the Slovak Republic and the action was supported by the Large Herbivore Foundation based in The Netherlands. Further partners were the Enterprises Ulic, the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Embassy of The Neherlands. The goal of this first reintroduction was to contribute to the establishment of a larger transborder population comprising wisent herds from neighbouring Poland (Bieszczadzki National Park) and Ukraine, currently comprising about 40 animals each, and the new herd at Poloniny.
Sometimes considered a minor issue by local stakeholders, wisent reintroduction is in fact a major, costly and labour-intensive exercise, which we would like to illustrate using the Goldau animals as an example. Weeks before transport, the necessary permits had to be received. Then the zoo veterinian had to repeatedly immobilise the animals for blood sampling and testing for tuberculosis. The blood had to be sent to a specialised lab for testing, fecal samples had to be collected and examined, and the official veterinary certificates had to be obtained from the State Veterinarian. 36 hours before loading, a sedative drug had to be applied by blow pipe and, for loading, the wisents had to be immobilized again. Once asleep, the animals - 180 kg each - had to be carried into the lorry by some strong men, and then received a drug to reverse the immobilisation effect. During the night, the wisents stayed in the lorry where they received food and water. The next day, they were transported for about 2h30 to the Austrian border, where the first custom clearing and veterinary border check took place (duration 1h30). Subsequently, the 1000 km across Austria took another 15 hours. Late in the evening the transport arrived at Schlosshof, a new facility run by Vienna Zoo next to the Slovakian border. At Schlosshof the animals and accompanying staff got their rations and some rest. The following day was spent with crossing the Slovakian border and driving the 1400 km to Polonyi. At arrival, the animals were released into a large enclosure where they met their three conspecifics from Parco Natura Viva and Artis Zoo, which had arrived two day earlier. All five wisents stayed for several months in the enclosure before being released into the National Park.
More animals were received and released in 2005, and by autumn 2005 there were nine wild wisents in the Park.
WAZA Conservation Project 05006 is executed by the Goldau Landscape and Animal Park, Parco Natura Viva-Bussolengo, Artis Zoo Amsterdam, Zoopark Chomutov and Bratislava Zoo.
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© Martin Wehrle, Tierpark Goldau