This Europe: Zoo bison find plenty of room to roam on the steppes of Russia

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The Independent Online

They used to roam the steppes of Russia in their thousands, with wild horses and woolly mammoths. Today the number of European bison, a close relative of the American buffalo, total just a few hundred in Russia and were, until recently, going the way of the mammoth.

They used to roam the steppes of Russia in their thousands, with wild horses and woolly mammoths. Today the number of European bison, a close relative of the American buffalo, total just a few hundred in Russia and were, until recently, going the way of the mammoth.

But a breeding scheme is seeing their steady return, with seven bisontransferred from Switzerland's Berne and Winterthur zoos last week and now waiting in quarantine to join the dwindling herds in thecentral Asian wilds. The bison will spend a month in the Prioksko-Terrasny Nature Reserve breeding centre to acclimatise before joining the 54 bison already reintroduced to the Orel, Bryansk and Kaluga regions.

More than 30 calves have since been born and the introduction of the seven Swiss bison will help the reproductive process, say the organisers, the World-Wide Fund for Nature. "Fresh blood from foreign populations is crucial for maintaining a good gene pool to ensure the survival of this species," said Olga Pereladova, the project co-ordinator.

The goal is to build herds of up to 1,000 beasts. In 1927, only 52 European bison were left, all of them in captivity. The WWF reintroduced them to the wild and by 1999 there were 1,177 in captivity and 1,738 in the wild. Russia saw a huge drop in their numbers when the Soviet Union broke up and the bison became hunted for food. Eleven years ago, 1,480 bison were counted but by 1998 only 185 were left in the wild.

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