First taste of free­dom for ‘rewil­ded’ bi­son in Ro­ma­nia


An ex­cited crowd gath­ered in south­west­ern Ro­ma­nia to watch more than a dozen woolly brown bi­son stroll off trucks into the pic­turesque Tarcu moun­tains — nearly 200 years af­ter they be­came ex­tinct in the re­gion.

“I grew up hear­ing le­gends about bi­son that lived here and to­day we fi­nally see them there,” said 60-year-old teacher Elena Dragomir, watch­ing the event near the vil­lage of Armenis with a group of her stu­dents.

Wildlife ex­perts brought a group of 14 bi­son from zoos across Europe last week to a 140-hectare Ro­ma­nian re­serve, where they will reac­cli­ma­tize to nat­u­ral life be­fore their re­lease into the wilder­ness in a few months time.

On Satur­day, another group of 14 bi­son was re­leased fully into the South­ern Carpathi­ans, a year af­ter they were brought to the re­serve to reac­cli­ma­tize.

The pro­gram, run by Rewil­d­ing Europe, WWF Ro­ma­nia and the lo­cal com­mu­nity, for now in­volves only a small group of the huge horned an­i­mals, but sci­en­tists hope to see herds to­tal­ing about 500 bi­son in the area by 2025.

“This pro­ject is not only about sav­ing Europe’s largest mam­mal. It is also about restor­ing an ecosys­tem,” said Wouter Helmer, di­rec­tor of con­ser­va­tion at Rewil­d­ing Europe.

“The bi­son is graz­ing mead­ows, keep­ing them open for in­sects, flow­ers and rep­tiles. One species makes the world more fun for thou­sands of oth­ers,” he said.

The ‘Hou­dini’ of Bi­son

The bi­son, how­ever, do not al­ways fol­low the pro­gram laid out for them. One new­comer quickly broke through a fence and was found peace­fully ru­mi­nat­ing on a hill dot­ted with fir trees and for­est straw­ber­ries a day af­ter his ar­rival.

“The bi­son beat us. He al­ready re­leased him­self. It wasn’t planned, it just hap­pened. It is all part of the rewil­d­ing process,” said Joep van de Vlasakker, a pas­sion­ate bi­son spe­cial­ist and con­sul­tant for Rewil­d­ing Europe.

The run­away un­gu­late, 2 me­ters tall with big black eyes, has been bap­tized “Hou­dini” af­ter the ma­gi­cian famed for his ex­tra­or­di­nary es­capes. Aged three, he ar­rived from the Thoiry zoo, near Paris, with 13 other bi­son from Switzer­land, Ger­many, Bel­gium and France.

Hou­dini will most prob­a­bly re­join his fel­low bi­son in the re­serve, his es­cape hav­ing been pro­voked by the stress of the jour­ney to the moun­tains, the ex­perts said.

“We now leave the bisons in peace as much as pos­si­ble, the rangers will ob­serve them, they will take good care of them to make the process of adap­ta­tion as smooth as pos­si­ble,” said van de Vlasakker.

From the first group of 17 bi­son that ar­rived last year, three died last sum­mer from in­sect-borne “blue­tongue” dis­ease. But the oth­ers “adapted per­fectly” and the ex­perts de­cided they were ready to leave the re­serve to live in 59,000 hectares of wilder­ness in the Tarcu moun­tains.

Se­verely de­pleted by hunt­ing and de­for­esta­tion, the Euro­pean bi­son came close to ex­tinc­tion in the 20th cen­tury, sur­viv­ing thanks to breed­ing pro­gram for those kept in cap­tiv­ity.

To­day there are more than 5,000 bi­son in Europe, but only 3,400 live in free­dom or semifree­dom, ac­cord­ing to wildlife


Fewer Than Black Rhi­nos

in Africa

The big­gest pop­u­la­tion is found in Poland, num­ber­ing more than 1,400. Across Ro­ma­nia there are about a hun­dred.

Helmer said the species was “very threat­ened,” with fewer of them in Europe than there are black rhi­nos in Africa.

The bi­son to be re­turned to na­ture are se­lected by DNA test­ing to de­ter­mine their ge­netic wealth, but their per­son­al­i­ties are also closely watched be­cause they must be able to even­tu­ally form herds. In Armenis, a vil­lage of 2,500 peo­ple, Mayor Petru Vela is bet­ting on the bi­son as a unique tourist at­trac­tion.

“The area is of ex­tra­or­di­nary beauty but we were miss­ing some­thing spe­cial,” he said.

The com­mu­nity is work­ing with the WWF and Rewil­d­ing Europe to cre­ate en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties around the ar­rival of the bi­son — some­thing that has al­ready changed the life of Daniel, an en­thu­si­as­tic 25-year-old.

“I thought of search­ing for work abroad when the op­por­tu­nity to train as a ranger with WWF pre­sented it­self,” he said.


Euro­pean bi­son re­leased from trans­port boxes stand at the Magura Zim­brilor rein­tro­duc­ing area 20 kilo­me­ters from Armenis vil­lage, Ro­ma­nia, on June 12.

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