The European bison was on the brink of extinction, but the shaggy creatures are making a comeback. Now, a small herd are to be released into Germany's forests - the first bison to roam here in nearly a century.
At first there were concerns about reintroducing the European bison into North Rhine-Westphalia. Hikers worried that the wild animals would attack them. Forester said the bison would damage the trees and soil. Farmers were terrified wild bison would wander into their pastures, mate with the cattle and create hybrids calves.
But bison wrangler Jochen Born waves off their concern. "Everybody's got a question or two when something new crops up," he told DW.
Born trains bison near the German town of Bad Berleburg. Right now, he cares for two captive herds as part of his work with an organization called Bison World Wittgenstein. His job is to prepare bison for release into the wild.
He says Germans have nothing to worry about. Bison are naturally shy of humans. They generally feed on grass, not trees and they have no sexual interest in European cows. He's now waiting for official approval, which he may have within a few months, and then he'll open the pasture gates and release 8 of the creatures into the open forests. This will be the first time wild bison have been able to roam freelny in Western Europe in nearly a century.
Jochen Born pulls his pickup truck into a grassy enclosure and suddenly a group of curious, woolly quadrupeds come trotting over. These five animals live on 20 hectares of unfenced land in Bad Berleburg.
An intimidating bull named Horno approaches. He has powerful front legs and short, curved horns. A dangerous-looking beast. But, a closer look reveals the animal's true nature. Horno backs leisurely away from anyone who tries to approach him.
The bison are slowly being weaned off human interaction, so they develop the fear they need to survive
"That bull doesn't have much sway over the rest of the herd," Born said.
When it comes to bison, the matriarch of the herd leads the way. In this case she's a bison named Good Mood, who was transferred to the Bad Berleburg reserve from Berlin. "She's pretty used to people," Born explains. But while this makes Good Mood popular with humans, it means she's not prepared for the dangers of the wild.
"She's not ready to be reintroduced yet," say Born.
Born looks after a second herd of eight bison that have been carefully groomed for reintroduction over the past two years. These bison also came from zoos and wildlife reserves and still need to be weaned away from humans. "That's why this particular enclosure has strict regulations in terms of visitors," explains Born's colleague, forest director Johannes Röhl. "With the exception of animal caretakers feeding the animals, no one's allowed in."
There are occasional encounters between the bison and humans. There are run-ins with cross-country skiers, photographers, and yapping dogs. But these interactions have shown that bison don't represent a serious danger to humans and generally try to avoid them.
If all goes according to plan, the shy group of bison will be led by matriarch Araneta into open terrain. "We'll have to manage the herd after that," Röhl said. "Particularly when it comes to feeding in winter." Assuming the animals do find plenty to eat in that area, and given their penchant for being homebodies, at that point they'll be inclined to stay in their ancestral Wittgensteiner forest.
Brink of extinction
European bison once populated large parts of Europe, from Germany all the way to Russia. But a combination of poaching and human habitation eliminated them from those territories. Their stocks continued to dwindle until the 1920s, when the last wild bison was poached. At that point the species effectively died out.
Luckily more than 50 specimens remained in zoos, wildlife reserves and on private property. Of those, only 12 were suited for breeding, as the others had been crossed with American bison. Every European bison alive today, including those at Wittgenstein, are descended from those 12 parents. There are 4,000 in total, with about half living in the wild - most of them in Poland and in Belarus.
The lack of genetic diversity does present a problem Röhl explains. "The wild bison in Poland are having serious problems with viruses that attack the males' reproductive organs. We've been combating illnesses by lowering inbreeding."
Mixing gene pools
Bialowieza National Park in Poland is where the official international bison breeding register can be found. All pure-blood bison are registered there. Scientists at Bialowieza advised the Bad Berleburger project in Germany on how they could reduce inbreeding and nuture healthy herds.
Every bison born in Bad Berleburg has a name that begins with "Q". When it comes to christening these animals, the people of Bad Berleburg have had their work cut out for them. Araneta has given birth to two calves: Quandor and Queen of Rothaarsteig. The trusty Good Mood also added one to the litter. As the mother has yet to produce milk, however, Jochen Born has been raising the calf from the bottle. When the ranger sits down on a stump, Quelle, the calf, comes running over and allows him to pet her. "I'm something of a bison daddy," Born says with a smile.