"Crouching outside a hay-strewn paddock, veterinarian Olivier Bertrand opens a worn black briefcase and digs through a jumble of huge syringes and glass vials labeled Dopram-V, Immobilon, and Large-Animal Revivon. He chooses a 5-inch dart, fills it with Immobilon, and loads it into what looks like a high-end paintball rifle. Bertrand lodges the butt against his shoulder, takes aim over the slats of the fence, and pulls the trigger. With a pfft, the dart lodges into the hindquarters of a 1,500-pound, 9-foot-long European bison. Bertrand repeats the process, sending darts into two bulls just as intimidating as the first, their sharp horns and brown-black fur glistening in the cold rain. 'That should do it,' he mutters. Within seven minutes, the tranquilized trio — 3-year-olds named Jozef, Bert, and Jan — have dropped into the soupy mud of this wildlife park outside Han-sur-Lesse, Belgium. Snoring deeply, they hardly twitch as Bertrand, park workers, and a Dutch conservationist named Joep van de Vlasakker tie their legs and horns.
The men drag one of the bulls onto a rough wooden shipping pallet, and Van de Vlasakker, his rain gear and hat spattered with mud and bison dung, climbs aboard. A John Deere 3800 Articulated Telehandler — basically a cross between a forklift and a crane — hoists the pair 6 feet off the ground and rumbles toward the metal loading ramp of a semi designed for hauling cattle.
But the animal is too long for the opening. As the lift lurches forward, the bison's head hangs off the end of the pallet, inches from the side of the truck. 'Stop! Stop!' Van de Vlasakker screams, hauling up the bull's horns just in time to avoid a decapitation. The driver jogs the lift to the left and slides Van de Vlasakker and the bull into the trailer. Bertrand scrambles in and jabs the beast with a hypo of Large-Animal Revivon to stave off a fatal buildup of the tranquilizer in its liver. The bison lumbers to its feet, groggy and filthy.
After hours of shouting and heaving, the team manages to load seven of these endangered animals into the truck. Van de Vlasakker, the organizer of this expedition, folds the gate and loading ramp like sheet-aluminum origami, strips off his gear, and climbs into the cab. 'Time to go,' he says.
Percentage of a continent's large mammals that died off at the end of the last ice age.
Our itinerary is ambitious: After a quick stop near Amsterdam to pick up two additional calves, we'll truck more than 10,000 pounds of bison across Holland and Germany to the port of Rostock, a journey of almost 600 miles. From there we'll catch a ferry for a 28-hour ride across the Baltic Sea to Latvia. If all goes well, in four days our little herd will join eight bison already ensconced in a 500-acre paddock at Lake Pape, a former Soviet military installation. During the Cold War, it was a bombing range, and the Soviets anchored decommissioned warships off the coast for target practice. But they left the land — peat bogs, open meadows, thick stands of pine and birch trees, and a 5-mile-long lagoon — mostly untouched. Today it's the site of an audacious experiment, an attempt to transform the terrain into an ecological paradise straight out of the Pleistocene epoch.
Ten thousand years ago, Europe belonged to megafauna: mammoths, bison, tarpans (a stocky horse), and ancestors of modern cattle called aurochs. They grazed in a landscape of meadows and forest that looked a lot like parts of Lake Pape today. The end of the Ice Age and a growing human population wiped out nearly all of them.
Today, the idea that you can use those same animals, or modern analogs like elephants and Przewalski's horses, to restore an ancient ecosystem is called rewilding, and it goes far beyond conservation. In theory, we could re-create conditions that last existed when mammoths walked the earth and the environment was healthier and more diverse.
For more than a million years, bison like the nine in our truck grazed from southern England to eastern Siberia. At full size, they can reach 10 feet long and weigh 2,000 pounds. They were a favorite motif of Ice Age artists, who daubed aurochs, tarpans, and bison on cave walls in Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. When the last ice age ended — in roughly 8,000 BC — human hunting and the changing climate pushed the mammoth, the giant deer, and the woolly rhino to extinction. The bison is now the largest mammal on the continent and one of a handful of megafauna to remain from the Pleistocene.
They barely made it. In 1927, poachers in Russia shot the last wild European bison. Seven cows and five bulls survived in zoos. In the past half century, careful breeding has rebuilt the population to 3,500 — inbred and vulnerable to disease, but alive. Using even a few for Van de Vlasakker's project risks disrupting the careful breeding and conservation efforts that brought them back — which, of course, made this experiment in rewilding possible in the first place."
(Via Wired News.)