Descendants of ancient tarpans help European bison to survive
In December 2020 UNDP released its anniversary 30th Human Development Report “The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene”. Apart from the annual Human Development Index ranking of the countries, the research delivered a stunning message about mankind being at the collision course with nature by pushing up against planetary boundaries in its pursuit for material gains and economic growth.
The solution lies in nature-friendly development that can ease human pressures on the planet by taking steps to design and apply new green technologies, many of which are inspired by nature itself.
In Belarus the GEF, UNDP and the Belarus’ Ministry of Environment invest in nature- based solutions and maximize their potential to help bring endangered animals like the European bison back from the brink.
The European bison is one of the most prominent symbols of Belarus. This beautiful and impressively powerful animal is praised in the Belarusian culture. The bison’s silhouette can be seen on coats of arms of many Belarusian cities and towns. Today, this iconic Belarusian animal needs protection more than ever.
Once numerous herds of this magnificent animals used to roam freely across the continent. Hunting and ecological degradation of natural habitat drove down the bison population over three centuries. Today free-ranging herds of bison can still be found in Germany, Poland, Moldova, Switzerland, Lithuania and Belarus.
The Naliboksky micro-population is the key to the preservation of the European bison in the central Belarus. It grows steadily. For 26 years the number of bison in the Naliboksky Republican Landscape Reserve has increased almost six-fold. However, the increase and birth rate have a negative trend. The average multi-year increase of the Naliboksky bison is lower if compared to other free-ranging populations of this animal in Belarus.
Recently, researches noticed significant changes in the spatial distribution of the bison in the reserve. During the winter season, the animals feed on winter crops and grass on mowed meadows and agricultural lands in close proximity to the district capital town of Volozhin. More than 65 per cent of the Naliboksky micro-population graze there more than 70 days a year. The animals have expanded their territory and, in some places, in a search for food they came close to farmlands and houses of villagers.
Bison cause significant damage to crops. The number of conflicts between the bison and local people went up, as well as the number of traffic accidents with reported cases fatalities among both people and the animals.
With the financial support from the Global Environment Facility (the GEF), UNDP and the Ministry of Environment work to ensure comfortable habitat environment for the bison in the Naliboksky Reserve through the creation and further nature-based management of natural meadows.
To support the habitat of the Naliboksky micro-population, restoration works were carried out on the Tyakovo nature plot, making it a friendlier place for the bison to graze. One hundred fifty ha of the pastures were restored there through regular mowing, including restoration of 44 ha of hay meadows and 106 ha of fields under oats, peas and perennial grasses.
However, mechanical clearing of pastures alone does not ensure their environmental sustainability in a long-term perspective. To do so, it is imperative to restore natural food chains. This is where nature steps in to provide the solution. The European wild forest horse, also known as tarpan is a keystone specie in the healthy grassland ecosystem. The original animal went extinct in the late 19th century and a new breed of the animal was brought back by genetic reconstitution. In the past, tarpan horses along with the aurochs cattle were among the most important grazing species and ensured the natural grazing of meadows – a home for many other species, including the bison.
UNDP together with the Academy of Sciences of Belarus has developed and implemented a scheme for introduction of new for Belarus grazing species - the tarpan horse breed "Konik" and auroch cattle breed "Heck" to support restoration of grassland ecosystems. The scheme bases on the analysis of biological and environmental role of large herbivores, foreign research and local knowledge about grazing species and the assessment of habitat environments.
Tarpans roamed the territory of the Naliboksky Reserve 400 years ago. Their extinction as a wild animal species is caused by hunting and agricultural activities of people. A year ago, 151 wild horses breed, genetically related to the tarpans, were relocated to the Naliboksky Reserve from the Netherlands as a part of the local rewilding experiment. The newcomers have quickly acclimatized and have already given their first offspring. The results of the re-introduction of tarpans to the food chains of the Reserve are already visible. Meadows stopped overgrowing with vegetation and the bison is coming back there in a search for food, leaving the farmlands and crop fields to people. It looks like two species are reunited in a natural balance in which they coexisted in the past.
The free-ranging herds of these cute and friendly horses attract many tourists who come visit the Reserve. Clean and healthy meadows with their abundance of animal and bird species are an ideal place for nature-based tourism – an important driving force for local economic growth.
The same solution was used by the UNDP-GEF “Wetlands” project in the Pogost nature land plot in the Middle Pripyat Nature Reserve in southern Belarus. In 2019, with the financial support of GEF, 18 auroch-like cattle were brought here from Latvia with the financial support from the GEF.
The animals have a very important mission - to keep the Reserve’s meadows from overgrowing and make them attractive and safe environment to rare migratory species of birds who prefer open spaces as their homes.
Nature-based restoration and maintenance of grasslands have numerous obvious benefits for biodiversity and humans. In addition to conserving biodiversity of valuable grassland and wetland ecosystems, these solutions help to reduce the financial costs of maintaining forest and wetland ecosystems in nature reserves. Another important benefit is the minimization of wildlife and human conflicts and economic gains from the reduction of damage to agriculture and private farming, development of nature-based tourism.