Gland, Switzerland (08.10.2004) IUCN-The World Conservation Union. The European Bison or wisent, is one of Europe’s largest and most impressive mammals, symbolic of earlier times, when Europe’s then primeval forests supported a variety of large herbivores, such as the aurochs (wild ox) and tarpan (wild horse). Unfortunately, these two species became extinct in historical times and the European Bison almost suffered the same fate. Formerly widespread throughout Europe until the 5th century, from the Pyrenees through to the Caucasus, it became extinct in the wild by the beginning of the 20th century, as a result of hunting and habitat loss.
Rescuing the European bison from extinction began after the First World War, with 54 captive animals, all descended from only 12 founders. Today, with a total population of over 3,000 animals, the immediate danger of extinction has passed. Approximately 60% are in 31 free-roaming/semi free-roaming herds with the remainder spread amongst 200 captive herds.
This Action Plan, produced by the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Bison Specialist Group, contains a wealth of information on the biology, genetics, ecology and population structure of the species. It also identifies the most important threats, notably fragmentation, decreasing genetic variability, disease and inappropriate management. The importance of international cooperation is clearly highlighted, and the Action Plan shows that future conservation and management of the European bison should be aimed at increasing the number of animals in order to continue the re-introduction process and save genetic diversity.
A major initiative currently underway is the establishment of a meta-population of European bison in the Carpathian region of Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Unlike the majority of European mountain ranges and lowland forests, this region remains comparatively under-developed and is a very suitable wildlife refuge. European bison were introduced here, during the 1960s and 1970s, to two sites in Poland and three in the Ukraine, and now total over 300 free-ranging animals. Unfortunately, these groups are geographically distant and there is no contact between them.
Initially, this project targets two existing free-ranging populations, one in the Polish Bieszczady Mountains and the other in the Zubrovica Reserve in the Ukrainian Bukovina region. It began with the release of four young European bison to Bieszczady, from selected Scandinavian breeding centres, to increase genetic diversity. Five more animals will soon be released in the Poloniny National Park, Slovakia and further introductions are planned along the Ukrainian Carpathians, in order to create links between herds. This should result in the creation of truly self-sustaining and wild population of the European bison in the centre of the continent. For such a wide program, international cooperation is essential and the project has got off to a promising start thanks to the involvement and enthusiasm of the many people involved.
The European Bison Action Plan is the result of many experts working together as part of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission to develop programs to study, understand and manage wisely the European Bison and its habitat. For those interested in the biology and conservation of the species, this publication represents a new benchmark of knowledge in the field.
European Bison: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan can be purchased from the IUCN Publications Services Unit, 219c Huntingdon Road, Cambridge CB3 0DL, United Kingdom, Phone: +44/1/223-277894, Fax: +44/1/223-277175, E-mail: email@example.com, or in North America from Island Press, Box 7, Covelo, California 95428, USA, Phone: 1/800/828-1302, Fax: 1/707/983-6414, or through the on-line World Conservation Bookstore
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