According to population numbers provided by Dr. Taras Sipko the bison in the Caucasus, Russia, suffered from large fluctuations from 1860 up till now. After total disappearance from 1925-1950, reintroduction attempts were succesfull and the population seemed to recover quite well. Than in 1990 the numbers dropped again untill new protection and restoration actions were taken. Nowadays there are about 500+ free-ranging bison in the Caucasus.




 

70 YEARS OF A GRAND MISSION

by Taras Sipko, Sergei Trepet, Peter J. P. Gogan

On June 29, 1940, five wisent in custom-built cages arrived at the Khadzhokh railroad station in the foothills of the northwestern Caucasus. These animals came from Askania-Nova to found what was to become the world's largest and oldest population of wisent, presently roaming the montane forests throughout the western Caucasus. Many prominent Europeans played a role in the history of these truly royal animals. Numerous political upheavals of the turbulent 19th and 20th centuries have directly affected their lives.

Herd of bison in Caucasian mountains

Herd of bison in Caucasian mountains



In early historic times, wisent occurred throughout a large part of Europe, and were most abundant on the plains between the Carpathian and Caucasus mountains. At that time, no barriers separated the wisent populations of the Bialowieza forests and Caucasus, so they moved freely. However, hunting and displacement due to the growing agricultural practices increasingly led to range contraction and fragmentation. By the end of the 18th century wisent had disappeared throughout most of their former range survived only due to unprecedented measures taken in Russia to preserve this species.

Caucasus overview map bison

Caucasus overview map bison

The first definitive evidence of wisent occurring in Caucasus was provided by a member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, Johann Anton Güldenstädt in 1770. He reported that in Ossetia wisent skulls had been brought to caves as sacrificial offerings. However, it was too late for him to encounter any live wisent there. In 1836 the Academy received a hide of a Caucasian wisent, sent by the Commander of Russia's Caucasian military corps, Baron Rosen. The Academy member Karl Ernst von Baer compared it with hides from Bialowieza and concluded that it belonged to the same species of animal.

Refuge to various wild animals

The survival of wisent in the western Caucasus was facilitated by environmental conditions and, in no small part, by the historical setting of the Kuban region. For many centuries the region experienced incessant warfare between nomads and mountaineers. Strange as it may sound now, the area's chief export item of the time was slaves, routinely captured in armed raids and sold at markets in the Black Sea region for subsequent trafficking to the Mediterranean states. The nomads, main defense strategy was their mobility, while the mountaineers protected themselves by building their villages under the protection of inaccessible canyons and cliffs. Due to this pressure of mutual violence, no large settlements could form in the Caucasus foothills, nor in the floodplain of the Kuban River. The resulting under-populated territory served as a refuge to various wild animals, including wisent.

Russian victory in 1864

However, the situation in this region began to change by the middle of the 18th century. After a series of victories over the Crimean Khanate, Russia established a firm foothold on the steppes north of the Caucasus. This was marked by the construction of the Caucasian fortified line along the Kuban and Terek rivers, which became the state's southern border. As a result, raids by nomads stopped for almost a century, which for the first time allowed the mountaineers to spread into the foothills, hunting down and displacing wisent. After 1851 the Caucasian war shifted over to the western Caucasus and ended in a Russian victory in 1864. These events played a major role in the survival of the Caucasian wisent. The war distracted the locals from relentlessly hunting down these animals. Moreover, the war, internal strife, and accompanying plague all reduced the region’s human population. The mountaineers, previously populating all the highlands suitable for wisent, had moved down to the plains or emigrated to Turkey. As a result, the mountainous parts of the region became almost deserted. In contrast, the foothills were being actively populated by the mountaineers and migrants from Russia. The human pressure on the wisent in the foothills was increasing, forcing the animals up into the mountains, where in the past they had been actively hunted down (contemporary records mentioned large cache of processed wisent meat found in mountaineer villages). However, by the 1880s human activity in the montane forests had increased to such a degree that wisent number quickly declined. Contemporary estimates were that no more than 500 wisent survived. Only the establishment in the western Caucasus of the well-organized game preserve Kuban Game saved the wisent from imminent extinction.

Hunting Reserves

The phenomenon of Grand Ducal "Hunting Reserves" is worth special mention because these reserves played a key role in the preservation of native wisent during the 19th and the early 20th centuries. In 1888 the Bialowieza forest (126,000 hectares in area) was handed over to the Department of Appanages, thereby becoming the property of the Royal Court. One of the chief missions of the Department was "the care about preservation of wisent and the organization of royal hunting in the future". In the same year the Kuban Hunting Reserve was established with the purposes of "preserving wisent and organizing proper hunting." It was founded by an immediate relative of the Emperor of Russia, the Grand Duke Romanov, who received the rights to hunt on an area of 522,000 hectares. The site was selected by an expert on the Caucasus and hunting, F.I. Kratkiy, who had surveyed the Greater Caucasus Range for this purpose in 1887. In 1888 a contract was signed which granted the Grand Dukes exclusive rights to hunt on the northern slopes of the Greater Range. An experienced forester from Austria, E.K. Yuttner, was appointed the manager of the preserve. He used experience acquired in his home country to organize a highly effective protection program for wisent. A large staff of rangers and substantial expenditures to control predators guaranteed propagation of the animals. Remarkably, even the Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich had to apply for a special license to hunt wisent, which were legally protected from killing throughout the entire territory of Russia. In 1909 the lease of the territory of the Kuban Hunting Reserve expired and the Council of the Kuban Cossack Host decided to divide it. A large number of meadow plots along mountain streams and at lower altitudes in general were handed over to private owners. These had been places that wisent and other species of mountain game used to come down to during snowy winters. The scale of poaching during that period has been described in the article by W. Koch.

Old picture of Bison in old growth forest

Historical picture of Bison in old growth forest

 

Old picture of Bison hunt by royals

West Caucasus; Kubanskaj ohota, the Grand duke Sergei Mikhailovich and Aleksandr Mikhailovich, grandchildren of Russian emperor Nikolay I. have hunted down bisons.

Six wisent exported from Bialowieza

Only three native Caucasian wisent were captured alive and exported. The first, named Kazbitch, was captured at Verkhniy Urup in 1866 and transported to Moscow, but his subsequent fate is unknown. The second was a young bull, Kazan, captured in 1899 at the Kisha River and transported that same year to the Bialowieza zoo for "refreshing the blood" of the local wisent cows upon the recommendation of Professor G.P. Kartzev. The difficult trip may have stunted the growth of this bull, but he never fell sick. It is definitively known that in 1903 he was still living at the zoo with other wisent. What happened to him subsequently is unknown because the entire Bialowieza archive was destroyed by fire during World War I. This may have been the end of this bull’s lineage, but six wisent exported from the Bialowieza zoo in the 20th century to become founders of the modern population could potentially have been his offspring. Debates continue over whether the genes of this bull are preserved. Of the greatest interest however, is the third captured wisent, a male calf named Caucasus, that has played an important role in the restoration of the species. He was captured in May 1907 on the slope of the Mt. Pshekish (or, according to other sources, Mt. Abago) and taken to the Bialowieza forest. In 1908, the Emperor of Russia gave him to Carl Hagenbeck, a well known naturalist and the founder of the Zoological Garden of Hamburg, where the wisent was held until 1922. Then Hagenbeck ceded the animal to Count Adolf Heinrich von Arnim, who took Caucasus to Boitzenburg, where the bull died of natural causes on February 26, 1925. During his lifetime Caucasus sired seven calves from Bialowieza cows. These calves were the founders of the modern Caucasian-Bialowieza wisent lineage.

The last wild Bialowieza wisent was killed.

The high scientific value of Caucasian wisent was recognized by both the Tsarist and, later, the Soviet governments. Both governments planned a nature reserve to protect these animals. Yet, the plan was impossible to implement until the mid-1920s, and by then the wisent were gradually disappearing. According to the monographic study by I.S. Bashkirov, three wisent killed by Imeretian2 shepherds on the Mt. Alous in 1927 turned out to be the last wisent in the entire Caucasus. Neither the staff of the reserve, nor dedicated search parties could discover any live wisent or their fresh tracks afterwards. The Bialowieza wisent met the same fate. The last wisent there was killed on February 9, 1921, by the former employee of the Bialowieza forest Varfolomey Spakovich. Contemporaries pointed out that it was an act of protest against the actions of the new administration of the reserve, which began plundering its natural resources and commenced systematic logging of the entire forest. The new authorities gave an unlimited concession to extract timber to the British «Century European Corporation», which started unprecedented logging of the best timber. Several million cubic meters of the best quality timber were exported! Perhaps the frustration of Spakovich can be understood, but nevertheless the last wild Bialowieza wisent was killed.

52 animals remained worldwide

Thus, despite Russia's decades-long strenuous efforts to preserve wild wisent, no such animal remained anywhere in the world. Fortunately, there were people who cared about the fate of this species. On June 2, 1923, in Paris the Polish zoologist Jan Sztolcman proposed his plan for the restoration of wisent at the opening of the First International Congress for the Protection of Nature. In August of the same year, the International Society for the Preservation of the Wisent was organized in Frankfurt under the presidency of Dr. Kurt Priemel, the director of the Frankfurt Zoo. The zoologists Goerd von der Groeben and Erna Mohr conducted a count of the animals remaining in existence. By 1926 the first worldwide census of wisent documented only 52 animals were remaining worldwide.

Hybridization of wisent with American bison

A crucial step in the restoration of wisent was made at Askania-Nova. The reserve began when, in the early 19th century, the Emperor of Russia Nicholas I gave this land to Ferdinand Friedrich, Duke of Anhalt-Köthen, who founded a colony named Askania-Nova. Later, the land was purchased by a colonist Friedrich Fein. His daughter, Elisabeth Anna, married Johann Gottlieb Falz, thus founding the family of Falz-Feins. Their grandson, Friedrich Eduardowitsch Falz-Fein took interest in zoology and created the now universally renowned zoological garden and research center. Among the experiments on animal hybridization conducted there were the first successful attempts to cross wisent and American bison. The staff of Askania-Nova managed to protect a herd of wisent-bison hybrids during the Russian Civil War, but no true wisent capable of reproduction remained in the USSR. A program for the restoration of wisent in Russia was then initiated under the lead of B.K. Fortunatov, who suggested back-breeding from wisent-bison hybrids via "saturation" crossing with purebred wisent, so that the share of wisent "blood" would gradually increase. This required purchasing purebred wisent.

Viewed in the light of the modern knowledge, the then popular hybridization of wisent with its close relative, American bison, does not seem well justified. It would make more sense to try and save the purebred wisent to the degree possible. Yet, let us not forget the circumstances in which such decisions were made. The data available at that time indicated that wisent did not breed well and their number continued to decline: only 48 individuals remained in existence by 1927. Also, hybridization problems, persisted. Nine wisent (i.e. almost 20% of their total number), given to the Duke of Bedford by Emperor Nicholas II of Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, were kept at Woburn Abbey. In defiance of recommendations made by zoologists, the Duke ordered these wisent cross-bred with domestic cattle. The offspring of these animals had to be excluded from pure-line breeding of wisent.

Hybrids reproduced well

On the other hand, the experiments on hybridization of wisent and American bison, conducted in Askania-Nova by Professor I.I. Ivanov, were successful and the hybrids reproduced well. It is interesting that a similar project on the restoration of wisent was initiated in Germany. It was led by none other than Hermann Göring, who was an avid hunter and Germany's chief gamekeeper and forester. Before 1939 he participated in many shooting parties in Bialowieza and decided to introduce wisent-bison hybrids to game preserves in his own country. By his orders, American bison were acquired and two prominent zoologists, brothers Lutz and Heinz Heck, crossed them with wisent in the Berlin and Munich zoos. These were the researchers who also worked on breeding back tarpan (the European wild horse) and aurochs. Most unfortunately, none of their wisent-bison hybrids survived Second World War II.

A herd of animals, with true Caucasian "blood"

It is also important to keep in mind that the breeders had to face the fact that the Caucasian wisent had been completely exterminated, and all that remained was their genes ("blood") preserved in the Caucasian-Bialowieza hybrids. Since no descendants of pure Caucasian wisent survived in the USSR, it was necessary to obtain these from abroad. The staff of Askania-Nova repeatedly asked various foreign owners of wisent to sell or trade their animals, but most of their efforts were not successful. Finally, negotiations with Germany turned were successful. In 1933 through the company "Rue-Alfred" Askania-Nova traded some antelopes and Przewalski's horses for a purebred wisent bull from Boitzenburg, named Bodo. Most importantly for the project, he was 25% Caucasian. Thanks to Bodo, the staff of Askania-Nova was able to accomplish the first goal of the program: to prepare a herd of animals, with true Caucasian "blood" and as little admixture of American bison genes as possible, for repatriation to Caucasus.

In 1940 a bull and four cows were sent to Caucasus (another group of wisent was sent in 1937 to the Crimean Nature Reserve). The animals arrived at the railroad station by train and then had to be herded through difficult mountain roads for 35 km. This must have been an extremely challenging task not only because the wisent had grown up among open steppes and were unfamiliar with mountains, but also because the staff of the Caucasian Nature Reserve had never before seen such animals! Yet everything turned out well and the wisent eventually entered the open-air enclosures prepared for them in the valley of the Kisha River, called "Kisha wisent park".

No wisent lost during the war

In the same year, two of the wisent cows, which had arrived already pregnant from Bodo, dropped calves. Unfortunately, this initial success (new wisent born in Caucasus for the first time in decades!) did not last. The herd's only bull, named Zhuravl', died the next year. Replacing him was made impossible by the World War II spreading into Russia. Yet, that bull had previously sired three male calves. When the bulls finally matured, by 1944, the herd started growing again. The War came to the Caucasus during the winter of 1942. Fighting took place in the immediate proximity of the wisent park. To save the animals from aerial bombs and other hazards, the staff released them from the enclosures and drove into a remote ravine. As a result, not a single wisent was lost during the war years.

Migrating independently

Work on the restoration of Caucasian wisent restarted in 1946 but the strategy changed: the animals were now roaming freely and received fodder and salt only during the winter. At that time Sergei Kalugin became the new project leader on the restoration and re-acclimatization of wisent to the Caucasus. In 1952 he organized the relocation of a group of wisent to the Umpir depression. This hard-to-access depression is located in the remote eastern part of the Reserve and provides suitable habitat conditions for wisent. Herding 18 wisent for 65 kilometers through mountain passes, cliffs, and mountain streams took three days. Yet, later some of the animals returned back to the park. The next year the journey had to be repeated, except this time the animals were locked in an enclosure to prevent their return. Wisent in the Umpir depression gradually drifted up a chain of meadows along the Umpirka stream eventually reaching the alpine meadows by themselves. Thus, the descendants of animals raised among steppes started making altitudinal migrations just like their aboriginal ancestors. In contrast, wisent of the Kisha park made no such attempts. For five consecutive years starting in 1949 the staff of the reserve had to annually herd them up into alpine meadows before they finally started migrating independently.

15 purebred wisent introduced

The year 1949 was a milestone in the new history of Caucasian wisent. In exchange for some polar bears, camels, and moose the USSR obtained from Poland several purebred wisent. These animals played a key role in the subsequent program of breeding wisent in Russia. Two bulls were given to the Caucasian Reserve. The bull named Pushchanin came first, followed, two years later, by Puhar. In subsequent years a total of 15 purebred wisent, born in Russian nurseries, were introduced to the Caucasian Reserve. Using purebred wisent allowed almost completely elimination of the "blood" of American bison from the breeding program. Beginning in 1960, wisent became so abundant and wild that managing the population became impractical and the latter kept spreading into newer and newer areas of the reserve.

As project leader, Sergei Kalugin was succeeded by Alexander Nemtsev, a prominent zoologist who dedicated 20 years of his life to studying the nature of the Reserve and preservation of its wisent. In 2001 he tragically died in a crash while conducting an aerial survey of the reserve in a single-engine plane. The results of his research have been collected in the superbly illustrated monograph "The Wisent in Caucasus", published only after his death, in 2003.

 

Alexander Nemtsev in the field

Alexander Nemtsev in the field with a herd of bison visible in the background

Natural selection

In the early 1980s, the value of the program of restoration of wisent in the Caucasian Nature Reserve was challenged because of the hybrid status of the population. Preparations to eliminate wisent from the fauna of the western Caucasus were already underway but, thanks to research and vigorous defense by A. Nemtsev, those plans were abandoned. Clearly, the determination of the taxonomic status of those animals, already known under the name "mountain wisent", requires the use of modern genetic tools. Yet, preliminary calculations indicate that the share of the "blood" of American bison in that population is only 5%, and that natural selection has already fixed in it the external habits identical to that of the exterminated Caucasian wisent. Moreover, some other mammal species also contain foreign genes. For example, the red deer, nowadays so widespread in Europe, has the admixture of "blood" of the closely related North American wapiti. Similarly, most of the existing Przewalski's horses carry genes of a different species, the domestic horse. Furthermore, it is already known that the adaptive potential displayed by the mountain wisent is an order of magnitude higher than that observed in the purebred animals. Numerous attempts to reacclimatize purebred wisent in the Carpathian or Caucasus mountains were almost completely fruitless: in montane environments those animals lead a truly miserable existence, reproducing and dispersing poorly.

 

Bison herd in Caucasian mountains, by Sergej Trepet

Bison herd in Caucasian mountains

Numbers exceeding 500

But let us return to the subsequent fate of the mountain wisent, saved from absurd administrative decisions. Their population continued flourishing in the western Caucasus, reaching close to 1,500 animals (in 1991 year) and having dispersed throughout the territory of the reserve and beyond its borders. The external phenotype and the behavior of the wisent became identical to those of their exterminated ancestors. Yet, the circumstances changed again in the early 1990s. Funding of nature conservation efforts practically stopped and the social and economic structures of the region collapsed. Poaching, including the use of helicopters, the sound of which still causes panic among wisent, spun out of control and eradicated mountain wisent throughout most of their former range. Only due to the difficult mountain terrain and unprecedented efforts of the Caucasian Reserve staff that the animals were not exterminated completely. Zoologists estimated that only 150 wisent had survived and these were in the hard-to-reach Umpir depression! Surviving wisent even changed their behavior. Previously, prior to the onset of winter, mountain wisent migrated down into the foothill forests where snow was usually less abundant and wisent could still find food. These forests, however, were most accessible to poachers. Surviving wisent started migrating upward to the wind-blown, snow-free mountain tops, where they now spend the entire winter season. Currently the conservation status of Caucasian wisent is improving, with numbers exceeding five hundred.

Although the work on the restoration of wisent has been carried out in several countries over the past 80 years, the results to date cannot be considered successful. Unlawful hunting continues to be a hindering factor. The scarcity of good wintering sites on the territory of the Caucasian Reserve and the lack of necessary hunting controls in the adjacent areas hinder wisent range expansion. Also, the taxonomic status of mountain wisent has not been fully clarified and remains a subject of debate.

Long-term preservation in the Caucasus

Currently the mountain wisent preservation program in the Caucasus is being carried out by the largest German conservation organization, Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union or NABU (Naturschutzbund Deutschland). The main goal of the first stage of this program is evaluating the current condition and options for further preservation of the population. The study is being conducted by the research staff of the Caucasian Nature Reserve and a scientist from the A.N Severtsov Institute for Ecology and Evolution, Moscow. In addition to traditional population biology parameters, the genetic structure of the population is being studied. The applied part of the project includes development and implementation of conservation measures to preserve the mountain wisent and to introduce these animals to other regions. This work will also help reinforce the endangered status of mountain wisent at the federal and international levels in order to facilitate its long-term preservation in the Caucasus.

  1. It must be noted that, in the famous Bialowieza Forest, the first two wisent were released into the wild as late as 1952. Despite the supplementary food received by wisent there every year, their numbers have not reached the level of the Caucasian population. Moreover, the border between Poland and Belarus, as it was marked after World War II, runs through the Bialowieza reserve and cannot be crossed by wisent, thus dividing the population into two isolated parts.
  2. Imereti is a province of Georgia.

 

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