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European bison in the Rothaar Mountains, Germany (Photo: Wisent-Welt-Wittgenstein)
Image: Wisent-Welt-Wittgenstein

Endangered freedom

Irene Banos Ruiz
March 3, 2016

Humans drive species extinct in the wild - and sometimes, put them back. For World Wildlife Day, DW visits the first European bison reintroduced to Germany. Their freedom is at risk due to conflicts with local farmers.


In a remote area of Germany covered by a blanket of snow, wild European bison - the largest mammals in Europe and one of the most endangered large mammals in the world - roam and graze freely on a prince's property.

The cold, the silence and the immensity of the forest surroundings are as impressive as these wild horned animals.

Despite their imposing appearance, bison are calm and placid creatures. At a first glance, they seem to be the only ones in the immense forest. But, peering into the trees, one can catch a glimpse of red deer running through, and imagine the hidden animal kingdom with its nests and lairs.

In the middle of this wilderness, fear of an uncertain future disrupts the sense of freedom. A disagreement with local farmers could mean the end of these wild bison.

Depending on an upcoming court ruling, the bison may have to be killed.

The trend of reintroducing animals into the wild certainly has its pros and cons. Direct impacts on ecosystems and socioeconomic consequences are particularly in the spotlight of the public debate.

Welcome home

In 2013, a herd of eight European bison - also called wisent - was released into the wild in the Rothaar Mountains of west-central Germany. It was the first attempt to establish a free-ranging bison herd in Central Europe after their extinction.

"This is the first project that allows bison to come back to Germany," Bernd Fuhrmann, mayor of Bad Berleburg and president of the Wisent Association, told DW.

A herd of 16 wisents established itself as a part of the ecosystem of the Rothaar Mountains, ancient home of their ancestors. Eight members were born in the wild - one of them, second-generation born-free.

European bison in front of primal forest in Bialowieza, Poland (Photo: Mateusz Szymura)
Bison have been reintroduced across Europe, including in PolandImage: Mateusz Szymura

As with the North American buffalo, human activities including hunting drove the European bison extinct in central Europe almost five centuries ago. The last wild survivor on the entire European continent was killed by poachers in 1927, in the western Caucasus of southern Russia.

Thanks to conservation efforts including captive breeding programs with some animals kept in zoos, wisents first returned to the wild in 1952 in the Bialowieza Forest, between Poland and Belarus.

Continuation of reintroduction efforts means that nowadays, around 3,000 European bison are spread all over Europe, including in Russia and the Caucasus.

Long journey back to the wild

In Germany, the bison reintroduction project began more than 10 years ago, when Richard Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg - who has actual links with a royal family - brought in bison from zoos and other breeding projects.

Johannes Röhl, coordinator of the bison project, told DW that they carefully considered whether the wisents were prepared for the wild - including researching their reaction toward people.

"We found that every time somebody wanted to disturb the bison, they just go away, calmly," he said. No herd of wild buffalos would be stampeding into the town square, he added jokingly.

Johannes Röhl, coordinator of the wisent project in the Rothaar Mountains, Germany (Photo: Tonggie Siregar)
Röhl, coordinator of the project, observing the bison through his binocularsImage: Tonggie Siregar

The beasts now survive without human intervention. However, the debate about whether to vaccinate them against diseases and implement veterinary checks is still ongoing.

This pure wilderness also attracts a fair number of visitors. "It is very hard to see the bison, but for some people the feeling of walking through bison land is enough," said Röhl. "I've never seen people so happy to find 'bullshit'!"

The price of freedom

But reintroduction of these animals has also had its opponents. Due likely to ecological changes over time, the bison are unexpectedly eating beech bark - including on land owned by local farmers, who sell beech wood as lumber. They fear economic losses if the wood is damaged, or if the tree dies.

"We are looking at damages of 6,000 to 7,000 euros," landowner Hermann Vogt told The New York Times, referring to damage done by nine wisents. "If soon there are 24 animals, and they stay on my property for nine weeks, then I have a very big problem."

In order to determine in which area the bison may move freely, the case has been brought to court. A final ruling has not yet been decided.

Damaged beech trees in the Rothaar Mountains, Germany (Photo: Tonggie Siregar)
Wisent in the Rothaar Mountains are eating beech bark, damaging trees and causing conflicts with landownersImage: Tonggie Siregar

If the bison need to be penned up, the project will come to an end. "We won't fence them in again," said Röhl. "Especially the wild-born animals - they would panic."

"We would donate them to other projects and if nobody is interested, we will have to kill them," he said.

To avoid this, project coordinators are offering compensation for the affected farmers: "We look at the damage, and if more than 50 percent of the surround of the beech is debarked, they get the whole of the price they would get if selling it," Fuhrmann said.

In addition, project workers are feeding the animals during winter to minimize tree damage.

Why rewild?

The wisent project in the Rothaar Mountains is part of a greater trend. Present in many European countries, the European rewilding movement aims to support conservation by transforming European landscapes into wilderness again.

Map of the rewilding projects across Europe

"Rewilding for us means to let nature take its course again in places to which it belongs," said Yvonne Kemp, coordinator of the European Rewilding Network for Rewilding Europe.

The disappearance of top predators like wolves or bears from ecosystems has affected natural processes, Kemp explained. "In many European areas, the full circle of life is no longer present," she said.

Diana Pretzell, WWF's director for nature conservation in Germany, explained that bison modify the ecosystem in a positive way.

"The ecosystem grows and gets richer thanks to bison," Pretzell told DW. "There are several animals, such as bats and beetles, that need them to survive." Beetles thrive off wisent dung, while bats eat these beetles.

However, not all scientists agree that rewilding is positive. A study recently published in "Current Biology" warned about potential unknown negative consequences rewilding could have - not only for the ecosystem, but also for the human-nature interface.

'Wildlife in our hands'

Back in the German forest, the bison have no idea about human plans for their future - even though it will decide their very existence.

For World Wildlife Day 2016, the United Nations reaffirms human responsibility in its key message: "The future of wildlife is in our hands."

Wild European bison in the Rothaar Mountains, Germany (Photo: Tonggie Siregar)
DW was lucky to catch a glimpse of the herd of wild bison feeding in the Rothaar MountainsImage: Tonggie Siregar
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