Third bison release – one step closer toward a viable population in Romania

Posted on June, 13 2016

Ten more European bison arrived in the Tarcu Mountains

This Saturday, after 3,000 km of travelling, ten more European bison from Belgian and German zoos and wildlife centres arrived to the Țarcu Mountains in the southern part of Romania. This group joined the herds that Rewilding Europe and WWF Romania released here in 2014 and 2015, taking a step closer to creating a viable wild bison population to roam freely in this area after 200 years of absence.

Since 2013, Rewilding Europe and WWF Romania have been working together in the Southern Carpathians rewilding area to reintroduce the European bison back to the wilderness of the Carpathian Mountain range.

Bison reintroductions will take place for at least five more years as part of the LIFE Project “Urgent actions for the recovery of European bison populations in Romania” (LIFE Bison) financed by the European Commission through the LIFE Programme. The first two releases took place in 2014 and 2015 in cooperation with the local municipality and the local communities of Armeniș and Fenes, the villages near the rewilding site.

The ten bison arrived healthy this Saturday despite the huge stress caused by the 5,000km journey to their new home. They were released into a 15-hectare acclimatisation area.

Before their first steps in the Tarcu Mountains, the team and locals present at the release went through quite a roller-coaster ride. The torrential rain the night before left its mark on the forestry road and bridge leading to the bison enclosure where the animals are unloaded. The trucks could not be easily maneuvered to cross the bridge and get the bison out safely. However, with ingenuity and care, the locals, WWF and the Rewilding Europe team, including their two directors Magor and Frans, made a corridor for the bison to cross the bridge. In less than an hour, a fence was improvised by dismantling three gates using feeders, tape and branches. Two jeeps placed in the firing line of the bison’s horns guided the animals safely out of the trucks.

Later this summer, the herd will enter the adjacent rewilding zone of 150 hectares before joining the other bison that are already roaming free. The bison will then become a full part of the natural ecosystem in this 59,000 hectare large Țarcu Mountains Natura 2000 site.

This third herd consists of bison originating from different European zoos and wildlife centres. Three bison were donated by the Bellewaerde park in Belgium, six by the Wisentgehege bison reserve in Springe, Germany, and one by the Neumünster wildlife park in Germeny, which was hosted for a week by the Belgian Han-sur-Lesse Wildlife Park, a long-term partner of the project.

“It is within our power to protect wildlife and the natural habitats that maintain the health of the environment we depend upon. The bison have a huge positive impact on the habitat they roam. They help keep a mosaic landscape and maintain ecological corridors. Rewilding is a tool to help nature heal itself,“ says Adrian Hagatis, team leader of the rewilding initiative in the Southern Carpathians.

“These are the first ten out of at least 100 European bison that we will release here during the coming 5 years,” says Frans Schepers, Managing Director of Rewilding Europe. We are extremely grateful to the zoos and the wildlife parks for providing animals and for the generous support to make this possible.”

The goal of Rewilding Europe and WWF Romania within the LIFE Bison project is to create a free-roaming, viable population of at least 193  bison by 2020 to further grow to an estimated 300 in 2024. Bringing back the bison will be a substantial contribution to its conservation in Europe, as laid out in the IUCN Species Action Plan for the European bison.

The rewilding is also part of a large initiative in Romania where Rewilding Europe and WWF Romania work together to create one of the largest contiguous wild areas in Europe: three million hectares connecting various protected areas, core wilderness areas and rewilding zones across the larger, Southwestern Carpathian Mountain Range. This area consists of six different Natura 2000 sites and it is here where the European bison will be able to play its important ecological role in its natural habitats.

Currently, the EU's Natura 2000 network of protected sites is under pressure from some businesses and governments who would like to weaken the EU nature protection legislation. 
WWF has launched a campaign to “Turn Up the Volume of Nature” across Europe inviting people to reconnect with the sounds of nature and take action to ensure the protection of many natural habitats and species that are still under threat. There is a sound of the bison too.

Coming back, but still vulnerable
The European bison or wisent is the continent’s largest wild land mammal. Once it roamed across Europe except possibly Northern Scandinavia, as well as the southern parts of the Iberian Peninsula and Italy. It was severely hunted until it finally became extinct in the wild in 1927. By then, only 54 individuals remained, all in captivity. A slow but successful breeding and reintroduction effort in Central and Eastern Europe helped establish a wild population again. The global population of European bison is now said to be 5,553 (source EBCC, 2014). Of these, only some 3,230 live in free herds and 402 in semi-free herds.

The missing link in the ecosystem
The European bison is a charismatic animal with a long-standing heritage in Romanian history and culture and is loved by the public. For restoring European ecosystems such as the Tarçu Mountains, it is important to bring back this symbolic animal as it is a key species for rewilding and preserving wilderness strongholds. The bison’s grazing and browsing ability helps maintain a mosaic of forest areas and grasslands and creates more variation and structure in the landscape. It is a species that will help maintain the ecological corridors across the entire Carpathian Mountain Range and enable natural processes to occur.

Why the Southern Carpathians?
This area has been one of the core areas for bison since ages back. However, it became extinct here in 1762. The Carpathian Mountains are a priority region for improving the long-term survival of the bison since there is suitable habitat that is relatively well connected.

A European partnership on all levels
The scale and success of this initiative is possible through the support and hands-on involvement of the Municipality of Armeniș the local community of Armeniș the Bison Hillock Association (AMZA), the National Forest Administration (ROMSILVA), the Teregova Local Forest Management Unit, the Romanian Academy of Science, the Veterinary Universities in Timisoara and Bucharest and the local and national hunting associations. Dr. Sebastian Catanoiu and Dr. Razvan Deju, members of the European Bison Conservation Centre (EBCC), provided expert support as they led the first bison reintroduction initiative in the Vanatori Neamt Nature Park in Romania.

The bison reintroduction in the Southern Carpathians was made possible by the LIFE Bison project financed by the European Commission through the Life programme and the generous support of zoos and parks throughout Europe, for which we are extremely grateful.

The next steps of the initiative
Rewilding Europe and WWF-Romania are working together to make the Țarcu Mountains a thriving wild area where people benefit from rewilding and wilderness protection. Annual bison releases will help build up a viable, free-roaming population of bison and in turn provide new opportunities for local communities like nature-based tourism, wildlife watching and local food products. Both organisations recently took the first steps towards establishing a bison breeding centre in Romanian Hunedoara Zoo. The first two bison, one male and one female, donated by the Bielefeld Zoo in Germany and the Han sur Lesse (Grottes de Han) Wildlife Park in Belgium arrived safely at this breeding centre at the end of May. The female was born in Wisentgehege Springe, a bison reserve in Germany, and hosted in Belgium for over a year.

The third bison reintroduction by WWF-Romania and Rewilding Europe brought ten more bison back to the Tarcu Mountains in the Carpathians
© Tanasie Ana Maria
A fence had to be improvised during the reintroduction by dismantling three gates in order to safely guide the animals out of the trucks to the bison enclosure because the rain had damaged the road and bridge leading there and trucks could't reach the enclosure directly.
© Oana Mondoc
Turn up the volume of nature!
© Think Digital / WWF