Preserving legacy

[b]People from around the globe have long associated Belarus and the Belovezhskaya Pushcha with its aurochs. In fact, 428 currently live in the forest: the world’s second largest herd. If Europe were to have its own coat of arms and needed to select a heraldic image, the auroch would be a major contender. This largest animal native to Europe already has the honour of gracing the flag of the Brest Region, showing local feeling for the graceful beast.[/b]Hundreds of years ago, aurochs wandered the boggy lands of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha forest. In the 12th century, the Grand Duke of Kiev, Vladimir Monomakh, hunted them — followed by 14th century grand dukes Gediminas, Algirdas and Kęstutis. Before the Battle of Grunewald, the army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was fed from animals hunted in the Pushcha but, usually, the right to hunt remained exclusive to the nobility. Indisputably, the rulers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Rzecz Pospolita and, then, the Russian Empire viewed the Pushcha as an inexhaustible source of wild game. By WWI, just over 700 aurochs remained there and the last was killed in 1919.
People from around the globe have long associated Belarus and the Belovezhskaya Pushcha with its aurochs. In fact, 428 currently live in the forest: the world’s second largest herd. If Europe were to have its own coat of arms and needed to select a heraldic image, the auroch would be a major contender. This largest animal native to Europe already has the honour of gracing the flag of the Brest Region, showing local feeling for the graceful beast.

Hundreds of years ago, aurochs wandered the boggy lands of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha forest. In the 12th century, the Grand Duke of Kiev, Vladimir Monomakh, hunted them — followed by 14th century grand dukes Gediminas, Algirdas and Kęstutis. Before the Battle of Grunewald, the army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was fed from animals hunted in the Pushcha but, usually, the right to hunt remained exclusive to the nobility. Indisputably, the rulers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Rzecz Pospolita and, then, the Russian Empire viewed the Pushcha as an inexhaustible source of wild game. By WWI, just over 700 aurochs remained there and the last was killed in 1919.
From 1929-1930, two and, then, five aurochs, from Germany and Sweden, were brought to the Belovezhskaya Pushcha, and were encouraged to breed. By 1939, the Belarusian Government had adopted a resolution to make the Belovezhskaya Pushcha a state reserve. By 1941, it was inhabited by 19 aurochs. Since then, much has changed. In 2000, 218 of the majestic beasts were in residence. By 2012, this had hit 428 — a fantastic achievement! Now, the number of Pushcha aurochs exceeds the amount that Europe’s oldest forest can sustain in fodder, necessitating additional feed being supplied.

People will feed and give to drink
Aurochs eat up to 400 varieties of plants in summer: leaves, sapling shoots, grasses, mosses, lichens and, even, mushrooms. Each summer, one auroch can eat up to 4kg of woody forage and 30-45kg of grasses and drink up to 50 litres of water. Winter presents more difficulties since they must rely more on shrubs, lichens and mosses. They can’t do without the national park’s addition of extra fodder: 950 tonnes of hay for this winter, over 1,000 tonnes of silage, 500 tonnes of beets and 3 tonnes of salt. Each auroch consumes 10kg of hay and 8kg of beets daily.

The first mention of the Pushcha dates back to 983, when Kiev Duke Vladimir Svyatoslavovich stayed there. From 1409, it was mentioned as the Belovezhskaya in both Polish and Lithuanian documents and is thought to have gained its reserve status that year; chronicles from 1409 describing King Jagailo’s hunt mention the need for locals to gain ‘special permits’ for entry. In 1992, part of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park was registered on the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage List.

Where Father Frost’s Residence is now situated was once their stamping ground so these beautiful animals continue to be seen near the site and tend to be unafraid of people. However, some caution is required, as Alexey Bunevich, a senior research officer at the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, notes. He has dedicated around 30 years to studying aurochs and doesn’t advise us to come too close. “Lonely aurochs can be dangerous, especially if something or somebody frightens them. Others prefer to leave on seeing people,” he warns.
This autumn, an auroch slightly wounded a man picking mushrooms in the Grodno Region’s Svisloch District. The attack is thought to have been inspired by the presence of the man’s barking pet dog, which then retreated behind its owner. The auroch initially attempted to butt the dog but then left.
Of course, such situations can occur, as aurochs are simply so large that they can cause damage with the smallest of actions. In the Pruzhany and Kamenets districts, aurochs have been known to trample crops, requiring locals to bang on saucepans and sound vehicle horns to drive them away.
The Deputy Director General for Science at the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, Vasiliy Arnolbik, tells us that, this year, funds have been spent on fencing farmland. “For the first time, 858 hectares of fields have been planted with medic, rate, barley, oats and root crops in regulated farm zones, with new haylofts and feeding stations also built.”

Red Book residents change homes
I wonder whether aurochs could live in other forests. According to Mr. Bunevich, their narrow breeding (being descended from just seven original animals) has made them weaker genetically. They need to be vaccinated regularly and, of course, require extra food sources in winter.
Balanoposthitis has been discovered among the male aurochs, which seems to be caused by their high density and limited diet. Their rations have been since altered and the balanoposthitis is stabilising. Mr. Bunevich believes that the optimal number for the national park is 300-350 aurochs (around 100-150 fewer than today’s number) but culling is forbidden for animals registered in the Red Book. The only answer seems to be to relocate some of the herd, via the Plan on the Preservation and Rational Use of Aurochs in Belarus. In recent years, annually, up to a dozen have been relocated: to the Nalibokskaya Pushcha, to the Pripyatsky National Park, to forestries in Osipovichi, Borisov and Grodno, and to some Russian regions.
Belarusian aurochs currently have no chance to visit their Polish counterparts since border fences prevent their free movement. A joint trans-border project to allow such crossings still needs work but it’s planned that the fences will eventually be removed — if not within a year, then maybe within 5-10, allowing aurochs to freely wander on both sides.
Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Russia are ready to buy our aurochs via a Union State project to solve their over-crowded population. The Scientific and Practical Centre for Bio-resources at the National Academy of Sciences is co-ordinating the project for Belarus while the Institute of Ecological and Evolutionary Issues at the Russian Academy of Sciences is guiding on the Russian side.
Mr. Arnolbik is hopeful that the project will prove successful, telling us, “We plan to study aurochs’ genetic selection more closely at a national centre in the Pushcha. By studying their DNA we can select the strongest aurochs, using them to supplement the local herd and others, including those in Russia. Even in our Pushcha, not every auroch comes into contact.”

By Valentina Kozlovich
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