European bison or wisent were hunted to extinction in the wild in the early 20th century. But the species survived in captivity, and a handful now live in a forest in western Switzerland.
They are part of the first genetic conservation cell in Switzerland, introduced by the European Bison Association of the Forest of Suchy in canton Vaud. A small group of wisent have been brought there to breed under controlled conditions in a kind of nature reserve with electric fences.
The aim is to help preserve the species while promoting biodiversity in the forest through grazing. The project is supported by various communes and private individuals.
Five bison – a male and four females – arrived in Switzerland from Poland in November 2019, and seem to be doing well. It was a dream come true for biologist and project leader Alain Maibach, who had been campaigning for 13 years to turn part of the 50-hectare Suchy woods into a breeding ground for the vulnerable species.
There are more than 6,000 bison in Europe today, but they are all loosely related. This lack of genetic diversification presents a risk to the survival of the species but thanks to preservation efforts, their status has changed from “endangered” to “vulnerable”.
The Suchy forest is one of 300 sites in Europe involved in protecting the species. The woods are separated into three parks where herds are allowed to forage for 3 to 5 years per section, leaving the rest of the forest to regenerate. During droughts and in winter, the animals have to be fed to limit damage to vegetation. Eventually, the area is expected to accommodate 20 wisent.
The European wisent resembles the North American bison, but is not as shaggy, has a lankier appearance and has curved horns, so it looks more like the domestic cow. Visitors can spot them in the Suchy forest if they follow the trails around the enclosure. So far, the beasts are drawing up to one hundred visitors per day.