In many articles on this blog I have spoken about the reintroduction of animals to areas where they have gone extinct. This practice has become common in rewilding projects, and it has many advantages, not least the publicity that comes from releasing charismatic megafauna (yes, mostly them). The public relations campaigns of conservation and rewilding organisations present the practice of animal reintroduction as an unadulterated good, and as fairly simple: take an animal from here, put it there; wind the key and the animal goes about doing what its genes tell it to do. In this post I want to give you an idea of how misleading this is. I don’t mean to say that conservationists purposefully mislead the public as to the difficulties of reintroduction. Rather, in talking about reintroductions as just another tool in the box, we are prone to forgetting that we are dealing with individual animals with their own agendas and their own histories, and that therefore it is a really complicated, and unpredictable, business.
Take the example of the European Bison, Europe’s largest land mammal (also known as wisent). The extant animals of this species are spread throughout Europe in zoos and conservation/breeding centres, so putting a herd of them together to move to the Southern Carpathians, as happened in May 2018, is no easy feat. This particular reintroduction event was part of a wider project of restoring wisent herds in the Southern Carpathians, started in 2014 and currently projected to run until 2021. For each particular release of wisent in the mountains, animals from different breeding centres in Europe must be bought or donated, and their pedigree checked against the records of the European Bison Conservation Centre (EBCC), the organisation that decides whether or not an animal is to be considered a wisent at all. Once this is done, specialists in wild animal translocation must be contracted to gather the animals and bring them to the reintroduction site. During transport, strict rules apply as to the welfare of the animals. As could be expected, the reintroduction sites are usually very out of the way; that is the whole point of choosing them as adequate habitat for big wildlife. Getting a truck full of wisent to a location in the middle of the mountains is, of course, a very risky matter.
Besides the logistical complexity, there are also a lot of legislative headaches. Permits for the transportation and release of animals must be secured, blood samples handed over to state veterinarians, and quarantine periods observed upon arrival. Throughout the legislative and logistical thicket, the animals are handled intensively: either corralled or tranquilized for loading in the trucks, confined while in motion, and quarantined upon arrival. Needless to say, they are quite stressed when the gates of the truck are finally opened (if, that is, the vehicle made it up the mountain in the first place).
The usual motivation for reintroducing animals to their former range is usually composed of a mix of moral and ecological argumentation: as particular animals were driven to local extinction by humans, it is incumbent upon humans to bring them back; in so doing, we are helping to restore entire ecosystems through the actions of big animals. Wisent roam large territories, plough through snow and open the undergrowth up for other animals, maintain clearings, eat saplings and debark trees, and so on, all of which amounts to them being very influential in their environments. Mountains with wisent don’t look like mountains without them.
This is the theory. In practice, we don’t really know what mountains with wisent will look like, for several reasons. By the time the European bison was close to extinction (around World War I), we had persecuted it thoroughly and are unsure as to how it behaved when it existed in significant numbers. We are also unsure as to its living preferences: it stands to reason that in the past it was driven off the best land by people, and it might be the case that we now consider it to be a forest animal simply because that was its last refuge from people. In any case, nowadays as well as in the past, it can only exist in large numbers in Europe in the mountains, where people no longer live in high densities. Whether it likes it or not, we are still only willing to share space with it in marginal land.
The animals that do survive today have never been exposed to either large territories devoid of people, or the ways in which wisent herds would have behaved in such environments. In other words, the animals that arrive for reintroduction have widely different life experiences and must adapt to an environment that is new to them, and historically new (post-modern mountain habitat, i.e. with layers of reverberating anthropic impact). Once the gates of the truck are open, and the wisent make their tentative first steps out into the world, we are in fact doing something so radically new that we have no idea how it will go, good intentions notwithstanding. Even if the wisent in the Southern Carpathians manage to create self-sustaining herds (so ones that can reproduce without assistance and live in perpetuity), it remains to be seen just what they will do, and where exactly in their mountain habitat they will have the greatest impact.
Thankfully, animals have a mind of their own. Some of the wisent reintroduced since 2014, when the project started, have wondered far and wide, while others have preferred the enclosure of local gardens. The team implementing the project on the ground is doing their best to encourage the formation of a wild wisent culture, to replace the one lost when we hunted them to the brink. What this will look like remains to be seen, a chapter in the reintroduction of these animals that only they can write. Far from reintroductions being a simple translocation of ready-made animal engineers, they are logistically complex experiments in how to live with wildlife in the human age. The wildlife, surely, will have ideas of its own.