Changing Planet

Rewilding Europe Brings Back the Continent’s Largest Land Animal

Photograph courtesy Rewilding Europe

In a momentous effort to rewild Europe this week, an iconic ungulate species—which is also the largest land animal on the continent—has been returned to Central Europe’s Romanian landscape. The wisent is back!

According to Rewildling Europe, “More than 250 people gathered from far afield to take part in this unprecedented wildlife release event, far up a muddy forest track in the Tarcu mountains.”

Guests included Romania’s Deputy Minister of Environment (Ms. Anna Juganaru), leaders from the state forestry company ROMSILVA, members from hunting organizations, and media from across the globe. The guests were joined by forest workers and farmers from the village of Armenis. Ceremonial proceedings were led by the village priest and Mayor Petru Vela. With this release effort, a completely new bison population is poised to become established in the region.

After a 300-year absence, 17 European bison or wisent were reintroduced to the Carpathian Mountains in a historic effort to restore the keystone herbivore to various locations around the continent.

But this rewilding effort, the largest for bison in European history, is not an isolated achievement for just wisent or Romania. It is part of a continent-wide initiative, a movement, if you will, to bring back faunal assemblages to European wild lands.

The rewilding of Europe is intended to bring a new conservation ethic and vision to the continent, with much more space for natural processes, wildlife and wild nature. Rewilding will also help revitalize communities and economies throughout the European Union in the most sustainable way possible. Not only are the consequences sustainable, but they could also be far-reaching.

According to Rewilding Europe, the organization spearheading this effort, “Conservation in Europe has since long been a bit different to that in the rest of the world. Because most of the wilderness was lost a long time ago, nature conservation focused on cultivated lands, ancient farming systems and semi-natural, managed habitats, often depending on public subsidies. Our initiative is working to show that another approach is also possible.”

Frans Schepers, Managing Director of Rewilding Europe said, “This conservation effort is not about managing threats to imperiled habitats and species as much as it is about a historic opportunity to help facilitate natural processes in previously modified landscapes. Our hope is to restore the wildlife, wild nature, and wilderness in a modern, 21st-century Europe.”

Schepers sees this opportunity as impetus for a paradigm shift in the way we think about and approach sustainable conservation programs. He further asserts that he and his colleagues and their partner organizations see this nature initiative as a chance to take advantage of the current demography of rural Europe and address issues that continue to plague communities and whole country economies.

He said, “It is heart-warming to see how the community of Armenis has embraced the coming of this wonderful animal into their area of the country. By bringing the bison back to the Tarcu mountains, we also hope to stimulate a return of the other main wildlife species here, such as red deer, roe deer, chamois, and the carnivores connected to them. Rewilding Europe wants to make a significant contribution to the survival and comeback of this the largest land mammal in Europe, still listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. ”

Romania is about the size of Oregon and is home to over 22 million people. It is the ninth largest country in the European Union. Romania sits on the western coast of the Black Sea and has quickly become one of the fastest growing tourism destinations for European travelers from elsewhere on the continent.

Although Romania still has large areas of traditional countryside, not unlike other countries in Europe, Romania’s cultural landscape is changing rapidly as much as its environmental landscape. People are abandoning agriculture and moving to Europe’s urban centers. Unfortunately, these agricultural landscapes not only support a decreasing number of people, but they are also void of keystone species like the wisent. Today, more than 55 mammal species inhabit the region.

Photograph courtesy Rewilding Europe
Photograph courtesy Rewilding Europe

Although Rewilding Europe reports that pristine, primary forests and grasslands persist in the region, agricultural practices, as mentioned, have reshaped much of the Romania. Still they say that wolf, Eurasian lynx, brown bear, wildcat, red deer, roe deer, wild boar, chamois and other notable mammalian fauna occur in Romania’s Southern Carpathians. However, the herbivores, in particular, occur in unnaturally low densities. Population levels for these high profile species exist well below carrying capacity because of both deforestation and heavy hunting pressure over long period of time and other anthropogenic factors.

Near this ‘forgotten’ southwestern corner of Romania, which borders Serbia, one can also find Burcura Lake, the largest glacial lake in the country. The lake lies among the snow-covered Retezat Mountains of Southwestern Romania.

Aside from breathtaking freshwater bodies, this region with some of the highest peaks in the country, is also known for supporting some of the most undisturbed old growth forests in all of Europe. It is also home to Retezat National Park, Romania’s first national park, which was established in 1935.

In addition, the region is home to the Tarcu mountains, which stand farther west but adjoin the Retezat Mountains as part of an Intact Forest Landscape. It is in the Tarcu, where the bison were returned to the wild this past weekend.

On May 17, 2014, 17 wisent were released into an acclimation enclosure encompassing 15 hectares. The enclosure sits adjacent to a rewilding area of approximately 160 hectares. The rewilding enclosure serves part of the soft release program as a “rewilding “ conditioning zone, where the animals will be prepared for a release directly into the wild.

From the onset of the soft release into respective acclimation and “rewilding” enclosures, the public will have a chance to observe the bison. In addition, a bison visitor and conservation center will offer tourists more insight into the Tarcu Mountains bison initiative. The actual release site is part of Tarcu Mountains Reserve and the Tarcu Mountains Natura 2000 site and includes an expansive 59,000 hectares.

Intentions are to grow the herd size to 500 individuals by 2025, with five populations of no less than 100 head of bison.

According to WWF-Romania, one of Rewilding Europe’s partners on the ambitious effort, “Locally hired people have been already trained to take the role of bison rangers and the first bison guides.”

“The bison is part of our Romanian cultural heritage”, says Adrian Hagatis, WWF Romania and team leader of the Southern Carpathians rewilding team. “It appears on coats-of-arms, in our legends and in many historical place names, even on beer labels. It is a species that went extinct in Romania over 250 years ago, but it has never quite disappeared from our minds and souls. We have received very important support from authorities, from the wide public and, most importantly, from the locals, for bringing back the bison here. This is hugely motivating for us in our work.”

The “King of the Forest” was once wide ranging in Europe, although they may have been absent from Northern Scandinavia and the southern parts of the Iberian Peninsula and Italy. What we do know is that they were extirpated, and deemed functionally extinct (extinct in the wild) by 1927. At that time the only European bison on the planet were from a scattered population of 54 individuals, all managed in captivity.

“Since then, a slow but successful breeding and reintroduction campaign has been carried out, to a number of sites primarily in Central and Eastern Europe,” according to Rewilding Europe. As of January 2014, the global population of the European bison has reached over to be 5,000—5,046 to be precise. “Of these,” said Schepers only about 3,230 live in free or semi-free herds. This makes the species more rare than the black rhino.”

Dutch Postcode Lottery, The Swedish Postcode Lottery and the Liberty Wildlife Fund sponsor this bison initiative in the Southern Carpathians.

Here is the complete press release on the story.

Dr. Jordan Carlton Schaul is an American zoologist, journalist and animal trainer. He currently resides in Los Angeles, California.

With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email:
  • Ima Ryma

    The wisent bison disappeared
    From Romania, thanks to man,
    With sport hunting that perservered.
    Some wisent have returned again,
    To seek to live in forests free.
    “Rewilding” is the term that’s used
    To make homeland homecoming be,
    This largest land beast past abused.
    Will man let wisent freely roam
    Once kill playground of Ceausescu?
    Even though wisent may come home,
    Who really knows what man will do?

    Is it good that wisent be back?
    How long until man does attack?

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