Bison, adventure and love

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The Prioksko-Terrasny Reserve and its Central Bison Nursery have long-standing working and friendly relations with WWF Russia.

At the end of the 90s – a time extremely difficult for the entire reserve system of our country, WWF came to the aid of the PTZ and Oka Reserve nurseries, helped to purchase animal feed, and gradually renovated aviaries. And of course – the Fund’s help in breeding bison occupies a special place. It was in the late 90s and early 2000s that a joint program of WWF and bison nurseries was launched to create free populations of the species in Russia and to update the bison genetic fund in nurseries. About how it all began, about how invaluable experience was created, about what amazing stories accompanied this work and about what tasks are set for nurseries today – in an interview with Ph.D. Researcher Olga Pereladova, Scientific Consultant, Central Asian Large Mammal Program and Projects WWF Russia, Member of the IUCN Deer and Equine Groups – SSC IUCN, Scientific Consultant, European Large Herbivore Network (LHNet).

Olga, the history of the joint work of WWF Russia and the protected areas, where the work on conservation and reintroduction of bison takes place, has been going on for more than 20 years. Where did the collaboration program begin?

We all remember the 90s well. By the end of that decade, a very difficult situation had developed with all reserves and with all nurseries. They were actually without funds – they were not even enough to feed animals, not to mention some kind of development. We all, professional zoologists who worked at WWF Russia at that time, were primarily thinking about how to preserve the existing stock in the nurseries of the PTZ and the Oksky Reserve. As an option, it was necessary to leave as many animals in the kennels as could be fed for the money allocated. And release part of the livestock into nature – which, in fact, was the purpose of the existence of nurseries. It should be noted that after the collapse of the USSR, Russia was left without free populations, the creation of which nurseries were engaged in several previous decades – all of them were in the territories of Ukraine and Belarus. And we certainly had suitable territories for bison habitat – and there were already scientifically based recommendations – where to do it optimally. And just at that time, as they say, circumstances helped us all. Egor Semenovich Stroyev – then the governor of the Oryol region, showed great interest in the formation of a free herd of bison in his region. Already then, since 1994, at the initiative of E. S. Stroyev, the Oryol Polesie National Park was created. Having released a group of bison there, one could count on care and reliable protection. Egor Semenovich’s help in this was simply invaluable. In the national park were ready to accept animals and provide them with all the necessary conditions. And the cooperation program began with the fact that part of the animals from the PTZ nursery was exported with our help to the territory of the Oryol Polesie National Park.

So, the topic of creating a free bison population was prompted by life itself?

Yes. They didn’t start from a good life, that’s for sure. And then WWF-Russia together with the reserves began to build a program for further support of nurseries and the creation of a free population. The strategy was, firstly, to support the nurseries of the PTZ and the Oksky Reserve themselves, who urgently needed this support. And secondly, it was necessary to create genetic resistance and diversity in bison, first of all, in nurseries, and then already in the wild. At that time, for many years now, blood has not been renewed in nurseries, and the efficiency of bison reproduction has decreased. Inbreeding was already quite strong. Therefore, it was necessary to import animals lacking genetic lines in the nurseries – the source of “fresh blood”.

And with whom was it planned to work in the first place to solve this problem?

It was decided to contact European zoos to solve this problem. We contacted them directly and through the European Initiative on large herbivores – with the Dutch, with the Germans, with the Finns, with the Swiss, with the Belgians. All these countries were ready to give us their surplus livestock in zoos (because there are such surpluses in almost any zoo where animals are actively breeding) in the form of gifts.  This was extremely important – because in our means, one way or another, we were limited. But a gift is a gift. Therefore, the very first groups we formed in the first place, on the principle of strict adherence to veterinary requirements – and the livestock – that will give. Because of this, in some cases there was an enumeration of young males. Because it is known that if animals breed in a small group in a limited area, then very often more bulls than females are born – this is the natural mechanism for self-regulation of group growth. And it was with these bull-calves that our zoo colleagues were ready to part first.

How many deliveries took place during the program?

In total, we made 6 deliveries. It:

  • July 1999 – 11 bison – Holland (Natuurpark Lelystad),
  • December 1999 – 10 bison: Zoo Dortmund, Germany – 3, Tierpark Chemnitz, Germany – 5, Helsinki Zoo, Finland – 2.
  • March 2000 – 8 bison – Helsinki Zoo, Finland – 1 adult bull, Wildpark Langenberg, Switzerland – 2 bulls, Tierpark Dahlholzly, Switzerland – 5 bison.
  • April 2000 – 8 bison – Natuurpark Lelystad, Netherlands, Stadt Winterthur, Switzerland -3, Tierpark Han-Sur-Lesse, Belgium – 1.
  • November 2000 – 11 bison – Germany– (Springe, Homberg).
  • November 2002 – 8 bison – Switzerland (5-Bern, 3 – Winterthur).

I must say that although the method of transporting bison at that time already existed and was worked out in previous decades – then bison was exported to the Caucasus, Belarus and Ukraine, which were republics of the USSR, we still had to gain our own experience. The first 2 attempts to import from us failed. For the first time due to non-compliance with Russian veterinary standards by European colleagues. Then, due to the difference in mentality of our specialists and Europeans – ours sent a car with cells to Holland – a well-developed methodology that allows us to almost completely avoid animal injuries. And in Germany they refused to transport animals in cages for reasons of humanity, and sent the car back. It was very annoying – and a lot of time and money was wasted.

In July 1999, the first successful delivery of 11 first-born bison from the Netherlands took place. Held also not without problems. Firstly, there were difficulties with veterinary medicine. We set rather strict requirements for our Western donors, and they were not ready to agree with all of them. Moreover, in Europe itself, the rules of domestic transportation were more than strict, but for some reason they believed that in the case of export to Russia everything would work out. So the most difficult thing was to ensure that all veterinary requirements were met carefully on their part. On the other hand, it was necessary from our veterinarians to achieve complete readiness to accept animals in accordance with all the rules and without bureaucratic delays. We worked from two sides. And it was an incredible hassle.

New problems have arisen at customs. After all, it was a gift, and customs demanded a duty. So in the first year we had to pay duties for live bison as for frozen beef by weight! Compared to the commercial value of live bison, this, of course, was a penny. But they had to pay anyway. And in the following years, we already knew that six months before the transportation, special documents had to be drawn up, that this was a gift that was not subject to customs duty. And for each delivery, the entire bureaucratic procedure had to be repeated.

So, the first 11 bison safely reached the Moscow suburbs?

All these 11 animals arrived safely. They were first taken not to the PTZ, but to the Oksky Reserve. The principle of work with imported animals is that immediately after arrival they are placed in a quarantine aviary, where bison undergo the necessary veterinary examination, they are given additional deworming, vaccinations, and so on – there is a special protocol for this. After a long enough quarantine period, specialists decide where exactly to let out new animals – whether they will replenish the gene pool of the nursery itself, or they will have a new move to another nursery, or to the territory of creating a free group in the formed group for release after additional overexposure.

As far as I know, according to the stories of transportation of bison from Europe to Russia, you can just shoot a thriller!

Oh, that’s for sure! I must say that during all this time, while we were delivering bison, we experienced many adventures of various properties. There was, for example, such a story.

We all understand how important each stage in the transportation of bison is. And the very way from somewhere from Holland to the Moscow Region is a long and very difficult one. A lot depends on the person who is driving the wagon carrying a precious live load. Bison must be monitored, they must be helped to move the road, their condition must be monitored, care must be taken. That is, the truck driver must for this elementary love animals and understand what, how and with what frequency on the route you need to do. And now we found such a nugget – a charismatic truck driver from Holland named Ben Buzet. He had previously been involved in the transport of animals, but it was our bison that became simply fateful for him. Having taken such a carriage once, he became our real full partner. And not only a partner!

My graduate student, Olga Gavrina from the Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Biological Faculty of Moscow State University, came to us at WWF as my assistant administrator. She was fully technically responsible for all the nuances of transportation. She tracked everything, called up, went to the border to meet transport and escort him around Russia. And he and Ben Buzet began an affair! After some time, they got married, and Olga went to Ben in Holland. And I was left without a valuable employee!

True, this happy end was preceded by the dramatic events of one of the transportation, which we all remembered forever. It all started with the fact that our partners from Germany decided that it was inhumane to keep the bison in a pre-transporting small enclosure – as we prescribed them. And they kept them in a large aviary. And now the moment has come when bison must be loaded – and they, naturally, are reluctant to go into some narrow corridor and so on. Employees also did not consider it possible to drive animals by force. In accordance with their ideas, the best method was loading immobilized animals. Immobilized, loaded. And I must say that in this group there was one very large adult bull. We really needed it as a source of valuable gene material. And there was young growth up to one-year-olds – only 12 bison, considering this giant. In the back of the truck, the Germans did not consider it necessary to somehow separate the animals – and also, as you know, for reasons of humanity – let the animals move freely. So – they loaded sleeping bison, gave them an antidote injection. And already on the road the first bull woke up the first – weighing no less than one and a half tons. Waking up, he naturally felt very uncomfortable. Moreover, when they dragged him into the back of the truck, they also wrinkled him slightly, so that he was very angry – what, in fact, was the execution?! …. The sides hurt, crowded, dark, and there was also some kind of crammed little baby around lies! Well, the beast trodden on. What, at the same time, was experienced by the driver of the car, in which a bison weighing one and a half tons suddenly suddenly moved in the back, one can imagine. The trouble turned out to be when it turned out that one of the young bison, this giant trampled to death. These were the consequences of German “humanism”!

Further worse. A wagon ferries across the Baltic to Finland. Passes an intermediate customs inspection. And what do customs officers see? Instead of 12 bison indicated in the documents – 11 alive and the fallen poor fellow. This is where all the efforts of our diplomacy had to be applied. The phone just became hot – everyone called everyone. Both WWF Finland and the Helsinki Zoo helped a lot. Because the fallen bison had to be unloaded, all documents corrected … A lot of gray hair appeared in each of us who participated in this. And my assistant Olya just did not leave the hot line with Ben Buzet around the clock. And now you understand how it ended in the end! And now we, as a sort of “black” joke, recall that German “humanism”.

Is the success of reintroduction related to the importation of bison from Europe?

This is a major success, of course. After the animals were brought from Europe, breeding in nurseries became very active, and the survival rate of young animals increased. It is very important that over time, nursery specialists began to specifically form groups of bison before graduation based on not only genetic status, but also animal behavior, knowledge of the characteristics of their status in the herd, gender, age. It is very important that an adult female is present in such a group, which begins to lead this group, to develop new territory. In this regard, the Central Bison Nursery PTZ was and remains at a high altitude. And of course, all the territories that were preparing to receive bison were always responsible with this responsibility. They always prepare for overexposure, veterinary monitoring of the condition of animals, feeding, and so on. It should be noted and attention to this local authorities, governors. Protection and observation of animal movements were very carefully organized, new protected areas were specially created for the “corridors” of herd movement, and so on. Due to all this, already at large, animals felt good. And as my personal experience in researching different species of ungulates says, under such conditions the “bottleneck” effect ceases to work. Reproduction in nature is very much activated, the correct genetic selection is launched.

Now the past stage has exhausted itself and fresh blood is needed again. Last year we brought the party to the Oksky Reserve and now we are again importing from Europe.

What are the challenges facing the bison community today?

A new bison conservation strategy in Russia has now been created. The first strategy that we created in the early 2000s has been partially implemented, and partially needs to be updated. The experts are now prepared, another conversation – the requirements are constantly changing and the format has to be changed, in connection with this it has not yet been approved by the ministry. An action plan and a «roadmap» have been prepared.

The strategy sets such priority tasks:
– Preserve the main free-living herds in Russia and create at least 2 free-living bison populations, numbering about 1000 individuals each, having a natural population structure, capable of maintaining genetic diversity for a long time and maintaining the viability and ecological plasticity of the species;
– To provide evidence-based breeding of bison in captivity (ex-situ) (based on the global gene pool, which will reduce the loss of genetic diversity) and obtain the number of animals needed for reintroduction into nature (creating new free living populations);
– To summarize the available data on bison biology and to carry out the necessary additional research as soon as possible, which will provide a scientific basis for the implementation of the first two tasks, allow rational use of the allocated funds, monitor the status of herds of bison and develop an effective strategy for further actions.

It is necessary to continue to intensively breed animals in nurseries. This is important for maintaining the bison insurance fund in captivity, as part of the global megapopulation, which is necessary not only as a means of preserving the gene pool, but also as a source for creating and replenishing free populations.

In order to maintain genetic diversity, new animal supplies are needed. And we have already begun to do this – the latest delivery took place in 2018. We have created good foci of the formation of a free population. Further they develop, begin to interact with each other, exchange individuals, which will contribute to the creation of a single stable population that can exist independently of humans. But the need for new deliveries will continue to separate sections precisely with the aim of correctly forming the gene pool and accelerating the unification of the created foci into a single population. In the strategy and roadmap, all these territories are selected, and they will be saturated with an additional livestock. Moreover, part of this livestock may not come from nurseries, but from existing groups, in particular from Oryol Polesye.

 Are you planning to develop new territories for reintroduction?

Yes. Of course. It is strategically important to develop new territories in Central Russia – both more southern (for example, Smolensk region) and northern (Vologda region). In addition, while at the beginning of our activity we worked only with Central Russia, now the situation allows us to resume work on bison restoration in the Caucasus – and WWF considers this a priority. There is a reserve of such territories, the Institute of Population Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences conducted an analysis of the optimal potential habitats for the bison and the recommended specific regions for the importation and formation of new foci so that there are not just groups that live with the support of humans. And self-developing normal wild populations, which, according to IUCN standards, require a certain number of breeding shares of the population. But in order to achieve this, we still need to continue to export bison from nurseries. Demand for livestock is still higher than nurseries can provide. Therefore, a group of specialists on bison has been created at the Ministry, which decides, in particular, from the supply of the PTZ nurseries and the Oksky reserves, how much they can transport, and where we take the animals. This is important so that it is strictly according to the plan and the system, and not just to meet someone’s wishes.

In addition, now there is a real opportunity to recreate the historical bison population in the Caucasus. You can carry there from Europe, through our nurseries, where animals pass quarantine, and from the nurseries themselves. And now there is the question of creating a new nursery there. This issue is supported both in regional administrations and in protected areas.

How do you rate the work of the Central Bison Nursery now?

I remember well the times when we were just starting to work together. Of course, now the economy of the Central Bison Nursery cannot be compared with what it was in the late 90s – early 2000s. We technically helped the PTZ nursery a lot, purchased additional feed and slowly, one at a time we helped to re-equip the cages, and renew the hedges. Then they began to allocate money in the ministry, and additional funds were raised within Russia. The Prioksko-Terrasny Zapovednik together with us launched the Adopt Bison program, subsequently the program was completely transferred to the nursery – and it helped him a lot and is now helping. The nursery works with world leading bison experts – relatively recently, the famous professor Wanda Oleh-Pyasetska, Chairman of the European Bison Specialists Group IUCN, president of the European Society of Bison Lovers, visited him. Now the nursery is also a very popular tourist attraction, and its role in environmental education is very large. It’s so great that in the Moscow Region you can come and admire the grazing giants, take a photo, listen to an interesting story! And I must say that the staff of the nursery – bison show true love for their wards. The bison has become such a recognizable “brand” of the Moscow region, they know it, they are proud of it. And it is very pleasing.

Many thanks!