'Straight Out of a Western Film': European Bison Return to Wild in Germany
For the first time since the 18th century, the European bison is returning to Germany to live in the wild. The wisent, as it is also known, has been brought to the country by a famous prince. Although the creatures' survival is uncertain, the project has already attracted considerable attention.
With nothing but spruce trees for entire square kilometers at a time, this managed forest isn't exactly what you would call a wilderness. Nevertheless, the forest, together with its ponds and meadows, provides shelter to many a rare species.
In the forest surrounding the town of Bad Berleburg, on the southern edge of North Rhine-Westphalia in western Germany, the lynx stalks its prey through the underbrush, the black stork breeds in the spring and the kingfisher engages in courtship rituals. And almost every day, even in rain or snow, and on Sundays, the aristocratic owner drives around in an SUV.
Wearing boots and work clothing, and always carrying a chainsaw on board, the nobleman keeps an eye on things on his estate. "It's part of it," says Prince Richard of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, 78, one of the most important forest owners in Germany. "People who own factories also have to go there every day," he explains.
Inspecting the forest is no trivial matter. The estate extends across many of the hills of the Rothaar Mountains, and usually as far as the eye can see. It measures about 13,000 hectares (32,124 acres, or 50 square miles), or roughly half the land area of Manhattan. On this particular day, the inspection wasn't entirely without incident, as is often the case.
"There was a spruce tree lying across the path," Prince Richard later reports at Bad Berleburg Castle, where his family has resided for more than 750 years. The SUV also slipped down an embankment and got stuck in the snow. "Shit," says His Highness. "And I didn't have any mobile phone reception, either."
But the afternoon was more successful. "I saw two female wild boars with 16 piglets," says the prince. Keeping an eye on his animals out in the forest is his hobby, he says. They include about 300 wild sheep, 400 red deer, 600 wild boar and so many roe deer that his seven foresters have concluded they are no longer countable.
The prince's daily trips into the forest are about to get a little more interesting.
Germany's First Wild Bison Since 1746
Since he hit upon the idea almost a decade ago, Prince Richard has been at the center of Germany's most interesting experiment in species conservation. Now the project, which receives about 1.5 million ($2 million) in government subsidies, is about to enter its critical phase.
The state Environment Ministry in Düsseldorf issued its approval shortly before Christmas, and over the next few days several men will drive into the forest and remove the fence around an acclimation enclosure in place since 2010. When that happens, a herd of eight European bison, or wisent, will be free to roam in the woods. It consists of an enormous bull, five cows and two calves.
But it will be some time before they have explored the expanse of the entire forest. Like most of the wild game, the wisents are fed grass silage at this time of the year, which makes them somewhat lethargic. They will be more interested in feeding before enjoying their newfound freedom.
Nevertheless, this is the first time since 1746 that wisent will roam unchecked through a German forest. Europe's largest land animal was eradicated in Spain and France centuries ago. The species lived on in Eastern Europe, until a poacher killed the last specimen in the Caucasus in 1927.
It would have spelled the end of this close relative of the American bison, which is roughly the same size, if it hadn't been for the few animals that survived in zoos. They had already attracted the attention of conservationists in the 1920s. All of the roughly 3,000 wisents alive today are the descendants of only about a dozen original animals.
Now the soon-to-be-free bison are grazing in the prince's forest, surrounded by spruce trees. They are quiet, muscular, brown and massive animals. Egnar, the thick-necked bull with a massive chest, occasionally head-butts the other wisents to remind them who is in charge. As innocuous as this behavior may seem, it isn't entirely without hazard for the others. In one instance, he ripped open a young bull's peritoneum with his horns, killing the animal.
The notion of freedom for the European bison sounds terrific, but it also raises questions. Wild, giant animals, up to two meters (about 6.5 feet) tall and weighing up to a ton, roaming through the forest without fences or supervision? The animals will do as they please and eat what they want. And they'll roam wherever the leader takes them, even it happens to be along a major road or through the nearest village.
What will happen to hikers along the famous Rothaarsteig trail, which runs through the forest, when they suddenly find themselves face to face with one of these ancient bulls? And what will happen to forestry workers? Will the prince remain indulgent when the wisent starts peeling the bark from his young spruce trees? And can the animals, all born in captivity, even survive in the wild?
Germany is the first country west of Poland where the wisent will live in the wild once again. And whether the experiment is a success or a failure, it will certainly set an example.
A March Through German Bureaucracy
Johannes Röhl, 54, takes a laid-back approach to the future -- like a military commander who knows that his army is extremely well equipped. Röhl, always dressed in green, is a "forestry director in private service." He is the modern-day equivalent of an estate manager: the prince's right-hand man and, as such, the manager of his forest and of the wisent.
When the prince told him about his brilliant idea in 2003, Röhl thought to himself: "Is this an obsession?" But he read up on the subject, made some phone calls and did his research. Then he told his boss: "It'll work," to which the prince responded: "Then do it."
Thus armed with the succinct decree of a prince, the bison's march through the German bureaucracy began. A few national parks in Germany could also have initiated a wisent release into the wild, especially as species conservation is their original raison d'être. The Eifel Mountains National Park in western Germany once considered a giant enclosure, but opposition to the idea quickly killed the plan. Sometimes having only a small number of decision-makers is a good thing.
"We are a commercial forestry operation," says Röhl in his office, where the walls are decorated with the antlers of bucks he shot, and where Ginny, his hunting dog, is lying in her basket. "With this project, we want to show that we can be active in species conservation while simultaneously running a forestry operation, one that supports the prince's family, the castle and 70 employees." It does wonders for the reputation of a commercial private forestry operation, says Röhl. "After all, we're commonly viewed as plantation owners."
A Town Warms to the Idea
When Bernd Fuhrmann became the mayor of Bad Berleburg, a city of 20,000 people, he promptly paid a visit to the prince. On that evening in the castle, in late 2004, Fuhrmann, 47, was also told about the plan. He was perplexed. "Bison, now aren't they the ones you see in Westerns?" he thought to himself. "It wasn't the sort of project that I would have welcomed right away."
But he eventually warmed to the idea. Since the demise of the German health spa industry, Bad Berleburg has seen a decline in visitors, bars, jobs and residents. Not much grows there, aside from trees. The soil is poor and it rains a lot. It was clear to Fuhrmann that what the city needed was "something with charisma." Why not the European bison?
The ancestors of the town's residents were once the subjects of the prince's ancestors, and now they also proved to be compliant. "They didn't say much here in the area," says Prince Richard, "but they did over there." He's talking about the land beyond his estate, where people live to whom the prince refers as the "Köllschem" or "Cologne types." And they, typically enough, were completely opposed to the idea.
From the perspective of local residents, the ridge of the Rothaar Mountains divides the world into two halves. On the Bad Berleburg side is an area known as the Wittgensteiner Land, where the people are staunchly Protestant and speak an Upper Hessian dialect, and the economy is ailing. On the other side is the High Sauerland region, which has a growing tourism industry and a deeply Catholic population that speaks a Low German dialect similar to the dialect spoken in Cologne, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the west. For centuries, the two neighboring populations have been about as partial to each other as the residents of Cologne and Düsseldorf (neighboring Rhineland cities that are notorious for their antagonism towards each other), which is to say that the wisent was being released between two somewhat antagonistic fronts.
- Part 1: European Bison Return to Wild in Germany
- Part 2: 'People Were on the Verge of Fistfights'
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