Documentary Photographer Adrián Domínguez is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this documentary photography. From the project ‘RESTORING BISON’. To see Adrián’s body of work, click on any image.
RESTORING THE SPECIES
The European bison (B.bonasus) is the largest land-based mammal in the continent but generally it’s located in small and restricted areas, where the concentration of individuals is too high, resulting low genetic diversity and high susceptibility to diseases.
The struggle to rescue European bison from extinction began about 80 years ago, after the First World War. Although the species became extinct in the wild, a few specimens remained in some European zoos. The first reintroduction of the European bison to forest ecosystems began in the Białowieża forest in 1952.
The International Bison Defense Company (CIDB) defends the recovery of this species; in the 50s he managed to reintroduce 12 specimens in the forest of Białowieża. In 1966 the UN included the European bison in its “list of protected animals”. At present, it is estimated that the total number of European bison is about 6,000 specimens (EBPB 2016), therefore, a species in danger of total extinction; In addition, its low genetic diversity, the result of consanguinity, makes these animals especially vulnerable. Only 2,500 bison live in large areas managed and controlled, the rest are in zoos or small centers.
Formerly its domains reached Western Asia, but it was disappearing as a result of massive hunting, intensive logging and the clearing of forests for agriculture and grazing, reducing the original habitat of these animals. The species would have been completely extinct in the absence of individuals raised and guarded by man. Its range of feeding is very varied; Its diet is based on lignin (wood fiber), which includes 120 plant species and grass. Between pasture and browse, it is an animal that generates open areas and actively manages the landscape; a mature specimen consumes about 30kg daily. of bark, leaves, branches and bushes in general, and what does not eat breaks it, so it favors the rise of pastures by the entry of light (indirectly favors other species that inhabit these ecosystems, also as a protein reservoir for predators and scavengers). It adapts to very varied areas since prehistoric times, in Iberia it has been present for 1.2 million years in various evolutionary forms (fossil remains in Atapuerca, Altamira, etc.).
The major objective of the project was to set up a new strategy for the sustainable conservation of European bison in the Bialowieza Forest. New corridors would be created in the surroundings of the Bialowieza primeval forest to improve the range of the species. Moreover, detailed plans of migration would be drawn up, checked on the ground and recommended for including into regional and local management plans.
A key objective is an effective system of bison population monitoring (including yearly censuses, satellite telemetry, and genetic studies) would be implemented. It would provide all the necessary information for the sustainable management of the species in the long term.
The project would aim to improve the attitude of local communities towards the European bison and its expansion to new areas through better information and educational activities. Potential conflicts caused by damages in crops caused by bison would be avoided by implementing a system of contracting meadows for bison feeding. The development of tourism with bison as the main regional attraction will enhance its role in the development of the Podlasie region and make the species better accepted by the local population.
As part of the project, a set of different management action were implemented in order to improve bison dispersal in the area: about 46 ha of meadows were reclaimed for bison, 14 small water reservoirs established, wild fruit trees for future bison were planted on 6 ha and 19 supplementary feeding sites were constructed. Appropriate grazing areas for bison were created and hay was collected and delivered to all the supplementary winter-feeding sites as a result of annual mowing of meadows (on average around 200 ha were mown each year). A range of measures were also carried out during the project: protection of agricultural areas affected by bison and managing damage-causing individuals, supervision and annual censuses of the bison, monitoring of bison distribution and dispersal with satellite and radio telemetry, as well as the genetic monitoring of bison population. As a result of these actions, assessment of the space use patterns and genetic structure of bison population were made.
The bison population had increased by 13.6%, the total area covered by the population increased by 32%. DNA samples of target species were collected and deposited in the European Bison DNA Collection. Data obtained from DNA analyses were added to the European Bison Genetic Data Bank. Bison genetic variability preservation guidelines were also drawn up.
Recent European bison are the descendants of 13 animals, representing a recombination of only 12 diploid sets of genes; those of the Lowland line originate from only 7 founders. The world herd is highly inbred (F=20.2%), especially the Lowland line (F=32.4%), as found in the 1980s and those indices are still increasing. Inbreeding affects life span, viability of young animals, and the interval between calving and skeletal growth, to a higher degree in the Lowland-Caucasian line than in the Lowland line.
During the late Pliocene and early Pleistocene bison were widely spread throughout the temperate zones of Asia and Europe. They also penetrated through Bering Strait to North America (Flerov 1979). Forms reaching from Asia to Eastern Europe (near the Black Sea and the south Ukraine) during Villafranchium were relatively short-horned. Longhorn forms (B. priscus) developed in large areas of Europe and Asia, from England to Manchuria during the mid- Pleistocene. With the cessation of glaciation bison became smaller in size, especially in Western Europe, with shorter horns (cf. B. priscus mediator) as compared with east Europe and Asia (B. priscus. gigas). During the early Holocene bison were still widespread but still did not inhabit northern Europe. At the end of the Würm, a transitory form appeared between B. priscus and B. bonasus, described as B. bonasus major Hilzheimer, 1918. B. bonasus did not occur in central Europe until the late Holocene. During the last glaciation, perhaps in Caucasian region, it appeared, spreading to the west and north (cf. review in Pucek 1986).
In historical times: the range of European bison covered Western, Central and Southeastern Europe, extending up to the Volga River and the Caucasus. European bison probably also occurred in the Asiatic part of Russian Federation, but reconstruction of this range requires further research (Strategy… 2002). There is a consistent opinion that the shrinkage of the European bison range on the continent was caused by the progress of civilisation and that protective actions could not effectively protect the species. The process proceeded from the West, the South and the North. Bison in Gallia were the first to die (VIIIth century). In the north of Sweden bison only survived until the XIth century, and until the XIIth century in the south of England (according to some authors, only to the 5th–6th century, Szalay 1943). In the VIIth century, the European bison’s existence was reported from the northeast of France. In the Ardennes and in the Vogues these animals survived until the XIVth century. In Brandenburg by the XVIth century, they were already kept, and bred in enclosures. At the end of the XVIIth century (1689) an attempt was undertaken in Mecklenburg to release European bison from enclosures, however, this was unsuccessful. In the XIIth century, the existence of European bison was reported from the Usocin Forest on the Oder River, near Szczecin. Bison existed in West Pomerania until the year 1364. . Thanks to the protective actions of Wilhelm I, bison survived relatively long in eastern Prussia. In 1726, their number was estimated at 117 individuals (Genthe 1918), but in 1755 the last two animals were killed by poachers between Labiau (today Polesk) and Tilsit (today Sovetsk) (Karcov 1903, Heptner et al. 1966). From Prussia and Poland, European bison were transported to Saxony in the XVIth century, and kept in enclosures. In the years of 1733–1746 these animals were set free. They survived in enclosures in Kreyern and later in Liebenwerda until 1793. In the XVIth century bison became extinct in Hungary, although free animals survived a relatively long time in Transylvania. The last individual was poached in 1790. In Romania, the last European bison was killed in the Radnai Mountains in 1762.
European bison are kept in enclosed breeding centres (EBC), zoological gardens, and specially created reserves (191 in the year 2000). The number of bison breeding centres was growing rather slowly and as was the number of animals kept there until the beginning of the last decade. However, only 11.5% of EBC have groups larger than 10 individuals, and 23% of centres keep animals of one sex (7.4% of bison world population). These small groups are held in zoological gardens mainly for the purpose of demonstration and less for the propagation of a threatened species. It is of little surprise that during the 1970s, 8–10 of the larger breeding centres with 20–50 bison provided over 50% of the population increase (Woliński 1984). Recently (EBPB 2001) only 27% of world population live in large herds of 25 to 45 animals. During the last decades, a dramatic decrease in the number of breeding centres and animals being bred has been observed. The first re-introduction of European bison to forest ecosystems started in Białowieża Forest in 1952. From about 1960, a reproducing population was established (Krasiński 1983). Similar attempts were also made in the Byelorussian part of Białowieża Forest (Korochkina and Kochko 1982). During the following period, further free-ranging herds were formed in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Kyrgyzstan, some of them outside the historical range of the species. At the end of 2000 there were 30 such herds registered in EBPB, (including two semi-free in large enclosures).
The objective of the conservation strategy is to create the conditions conducive for the long-term survival of viable wild (or naturalized) populations of European bison (Lowland and Lowland- Caucasian lines). European bison can only be saved from extinction as a wild species and a natural element of the forest and steppe-forest ecosystems of Central and East Europe. This could be achieved by creating large (1000 animals, or more) viable populations of the species. A target number of 3000 free-ranging animals as a single genetic population is recommended as a management goal for self- sustaining populations for each genetic line [recommendations of joint meeting of Bison Specialist Group (SSC/IUCN, Conservation Breeding Specialist Group SSC/IUCN and European Endangered Species Programme (EEP), 1996]. At present, we are far from reaching such a satisfactory conclusion.
A Gene Resource Bank (Semen collection in the first phase) should be created to serve as a security against the loss of important genetic variation, to decrease the number of animals required for maintaining optimal genetic variability, and to facilitate the exchange of genes between herds. Studies in this direction have already been undertaken in Russia. Methods for the collection of sperm its conservation and use have already been worked out (Sipko et al. 1993, 1997). Much more must be done for obtaining sperm from the most important animals for the protection of the species and its heterogeneity. Adequate resources for its continuous collection, supplementation and preservation are very important for obtaining satisfactory results.
In Spain, the European Bison Restitution Project began its journey in 2009, introducing 28 specimens in different Iberian zoos. At present it has several breeding centers and has integrated several specimens in parks and zoos. They estimate a population of 100 individuals throughout Iberia. Its goal for the next decade is to establish herds in controlled freedom on some 1,000 hectares spread across several communities, and by 2020 they hope to raise the Iberian population of European bison above 1,000 copies (in the last five years 27 bison have been born in the Peninsula with enough hectares for the species to develop its own biology naturally). They present the European bison as a natural tool for space management, restoration of natural processes, tourism, heritage and in the future (with a stable and healthy population) their hunting; his flesh, his skin and his trophy (perhaps recalling medieval times). A living representative of prehistory, a common thread to understand the evolution of man. In addition, Spain needs large herbivores to manage its forest diversity.
All images and text © Adrián Domínguez
By Adrián Domínguez