European Bison Return to Wild in Germany

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Nevertheless, this is the first time since 1746 that wisent will roam unchecked through a German forest. Europe's largest land animal was eradicated in Spain and France centuries ago. The species lived on in Eastern Europe, until a poacher killed the last specimen in the Caucasus in 1927.

It would have spelled the end of this close relative of the American bison, which is roughly the same size, if it hadn't been for the few animals that survived in zoos. They had already attracted the attention of conservationists in the 1920s. All of the roughly 3,000 wisents alive today are the descendants of only about a dozen original animals.

Now the soon-to-be-free bison are grazing in the prince's forest, surrounded by spruce trees. They are quiet, muscular, brown and massive animals. Egnar, the thick-necked bull with a massive chest, occasionally head-butts the other wisents to remind them who is in charge. As innocuous as this behavior may seem, it isn't entirely without hazard for the others. In one instance, he ripped open a young bull's peritoneum with his horns, killing the animal.

The notion of freedom for the European bison sounds terrific, but it also raises questions. Wild, giant animals, up to two meters (about 6.5 feet) tall and weighing up to a ton, roaming through the forest without fences or supervision? The animals will do as they please and eat what they want. And they'll roam wherever the leader takes them, even it happens to be along a major road or through the nearest village.

What will happen to hikers along the famous Rothaarsteig trail, which runs through the forest, when they suddenly find themselves face to face with one of these ancient bulls? And what will happen to forestry workers? Will the prince remain indulgent when the wisent starts peeling the bark from his young spruce trees? And can the animals, all born in captivity, even survive in the wild?

Germany is the first country west of Poland where the wisent will live in the wild once again. And whether the experiment is a success or a failure, it will certainly set an example.

A March Through German Bureaucracy

Johannes Röhl, 54, takes a laid-back approach to the future -- like a military commander who knows that his army is extremely well equipped. Röhl, always dressed in green, is a "forestry director in private service." He is the modern-day equivalent of an estate manager: the prince's right-hand man and, as such, the manager of his forest and of the wisent.

When the prince told him about his brilliant idea in 2003, Röhl thought to himself: "Is this an obsession?" But he read up on the subject, made some phone calls and did his research. Then he told his boss: "It'll work," to which the prince responded: "Then do it."

Thus armed with the succinct decree of a prince, the bison's march through the German bureaucracy began. A few national parks in Germany could also have initiated a wisent release into the wild, especially as species conservation is their original raison d'être. The Eifel Mountains National Park in western Germany once considered a giant enclosure, but opposition to the idea quickly killed the plan. Sometimes having only a small number of decision-makers is a good thing.

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