Path of the forest giant

Road Map for Auroch Union State programme aims to find new habitat for Belovezhskaya Pushcha giants
By Vera Samoilova

The well-known forest giant is not only the most recognised animal in the domestic Red Book — bison bonasus — but symbolises Belarus. It is being used as the mascot of the forthcoming World Ice Hockey Championship, being hosted by Minsk.

Of course, in the early 20th century, these majestic beasts were on the edge of extinction but, with human help, they’ve raised their shaggy heads, gaining in population from 50 encaged animals worldwide to over 4,500. Belarus occupies second place in terms of numbers, with around a dozen micro-populations registered and the total number of auroch exceeding a thousand. The question is how we proceed to ensure their place in our eco-system.

Pastures new
Belarus should feel proud of its achievements, having begun with just five male and seven female animals in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha. Unlike rabbits, they do not breed quickly. Nevertheless, our auroch population has almost tripled within 15 years, fulfilling the first stage of the Auroch national programme, which aimed to reach 600 animals.

As our territory is limited, our forests can support no more than 1,500 aurochs; animals are already tending to stray onto agricultural fields, damaging crops, so their habitat is being extended. The new Road Map for Auroch (a Union State programme) gives Belarus and Russia a unified approach. Professor Mikhail Nikiforov, who heads the National Academy of Sciences’ Scientific-Practical Centre for Bio-Resources, tells us, “Russia boasts vast territories suitable for occupation by large herds, which need less human care. Belarus has many aurochs who could be resettled, so we’ve planned our Union State programme: the Road Map for Auroch.” The programme is to launch this year, running for five years, with our natural resource ministries co-ordinating expenditure. Of the 600m Russian Roubles being spent, Belarus is covering 30 percent.

Keep healthy 
New habitats for Belarusian aurochs are yet to be defined but remote, vast territories are to be chosen, to avoid poaching. Aurochs have a natural desire to migrate over large areas, so the chosen lands are to stretch to the Belarusian border, so that animals can interbreed. Of course, scientists will continue to study the animals, with each Belarusian auroch receiving a ‘passport’ including its genetic identity. “We’ve applied this to our domestic animals but it’s more complicated for wild animals, since they need to be immobilised in order to take blood samples,” Mr. Nikiforov tells us. “Moreover, trauma can occur in large animals.” 

He believes that aurochs are unlikely to edge out other animals in their introduced habitats. Moreover, scientists are hugely hopeful that these new populations will prove successful. Up to 250 aurochs are to be resettled and it’s quite possible that Belarusian aurochs may become hunted one day, like American bison.  Poland’s auroch preservation is quite advanced, so our scientists plan to liaise with their colleagues in this field — including organising animal exchange.
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