(WWF) – In the largest ‘herd travel’ of its kind, 17 European bison arrived from Sweden in Russia’s Oksky nature reserve nursery today 22 December, as a part of efforts to re-establish bison populations and their genetic diversity in Russia. Raised in four breeding centres across Sweden – Boros, Kungsbun, Avesta and Eriksberg – the animals will form a new herd of bison in the Russian wild.
In their new country, the bison will initially be quarantined in the Oksky nature reserve breeding centre, established in 1959, in enclosures resembling natural settings as much as possible, to allow animals to be monitored and provided with veterinary assistance as necessary.
“It was a difficult journey, the bison travelled from faraway Sweden, through Finland, to the Ryazan region”, said Natalya Dronova, coordinator of WWF-Russia’s projects on rare species’ conservation. “They crossed the Baltic Sea on a ferry, and then travelled almost 2,000 kilometres. We hope that newcomers will quickly adapt to the new home, feel great and start to breed. Their offspring will be released into nature in the European part of Russia and in the Caucasus”.
The latest herd is the first group of European bison to arrive in the Oksky centre in over 15 years. Most of them will stay in the centre for breeding while the rest will be transferred to the Turmonsky sanctuary in Caucasus along with a group from the Oksky nature reserve to form the second free-living group of bison populations in North Ossetia. More than 400 bison calves have been born in the Oksky breeding centre since its creation, and around 250 of them have been released into the wild or resettled in other nurseries and zoos.
However, in recent years, experts have noted an increase in the number of bull calves among baby bison born in Russian nurseries indicating a low level of gene diversity among breeding parents. This not only threatens livestock numbers and breeding efforts but can also lead to an increased risk of infection and non-viable births. The arrival of new animals from Sweden, agreed between WWF-Russia and Sweden’s Eriksberg Park, the largest natural park in Northern Europe, provides new hope for strengthening existing and new bison populations in Russia.
Once abundant in the region, habitat loss and rampant hunting drove European bison populations in Russia to extinction in the early twentieth century. Focused conservation efforts, including breeding and reintroduction efforts supported by WWF, have helped strengthen numbers over the past decades.
According to monitoring data from January 2016, natural groups in Russia are estimated to consist of around 760 bison making it the only species to successfully return to the wild after extermination. In the Tseisky and North Ossetian nature reserves, a replenishment of bison populations in 2010 and 2012, with support from WWF and partners, has shown to have a positive impact on breeding. At present, six to eight calves are estimated to be born each year.
WWF-Russia has been working on helping establish a free-living bison population in the forests of the European part of Russia since 1996. Partners and supporters of the project include WWF-Sweden, WWF-Germany, WWF-Netherlands, EBCC (European Bison Conservation Center), Eriksberg Vilt&Natur AB and INGSTAD & CO AB.