Biodiversity / Buffalo / Environment / Europe / Wildlife

‘Rewilding’ Germany: Water buffaloes go back home

Buffalo calves in Rajasthan, India

Buffalo calf in Rajasthan, India (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

‘Scientists are conducting intriguing — and counterintuitive — experiments at several sites in Germany: Bringing back long-lost herbivores, such as water buffalo, to encourage the spread of native plants that have fared poorly in Europe’s human-dominated landscape.

‘. . . Rössling is a project manager with the Brandenburg Nature Conservation Fund, a government agency in the federal state surrounding Berlin. The group brought in the water buffaloes from a special breeder in France so they would graze threatened tracts of fens and remnant inland salt marshes, as German cows have long since lost their affinity for grazing in such wet or nutrient-poor environments.

‘The Töpchin project is an example of a growing conservation trend in Europe — using large, exotic herbivores to enhance the diversity of A growing number of conservationists now seek to employ exotic species for managing native biodiversity. native flora and fauna. Many people still believe that nature conservation is all about leaving native plants and animals alone, or restoring their habitats to a wild state. But in a world dominated by humans and rapid environmental change, things have become more complicated. The answer isn’t always to strive for a regionally “pure” mix of native species. A growing number of conservationists now seek to employ exotic species for managing native biodiversity. . . .

‘What is happening in Germany is complementary to so-called “rewilding,” a global movement that aims to expand core wilderness areas, connect them via corridors that allow humans and animals to co-exist, and protect and reintroduce top predators. One initiative, Rewilding Europe, led by conservation groups such as WWF, aims by 2020 to rewild 1 million hectares of land spread across 10 reserves, from Spain, to the Danube, to the Carpathian Mountains. By contrast, the projects in Germany aim to restore and create biologically enriched landscapes shaped by humans.

‘Within a short time, a number of similar projects like the one in Töpchin have sprung up across Germany. . . .

‘Unlike in the tropics, large parts of Europe’s biological diversity of animals and plants occur outside of forests: on meadows, in fens, and on heathlands. “We need the buffaloes to remove biomass, otherwise these sites would loose [sic] their special plants and be overgrown by ubiquitous species,” says Rössling from the Brandenburg Nature Conservation Fund. And what of German cows? “Buffaloes are very resilient, they have strong hooves and munch away on nearly all kinds of plants, whereas modern cows are simply not adjusted any more to living in marshlands,” he says.

‘Zoologist Reichholf sees a wider importance of experiments like those around Berlin for the whole of Europe. Currently, European consumers eat meat and drink milk mainly from cows kept in large, industrial facilities and fed with imported soy from rainforest nations. “We can’t continue like this and have to learn again how to obtain milk and meat from a biologically diverse landscape,” he says. The German projects showcase how nature conservation and meat production could go hand in hand. “The current projects should be viewed as an important reality tests for a much broader application,” Reichholf says.

‘The three projects demonstrate that in Europe today conservationists must often apply intensive management strategies if they want to keep biodiversity high. After centuries of human use, returning to a state of wilderness will often make landscapes poorer in species, not richer, hence the rationale behind many conservation schemes in Germany that involve introducing exotic grazers. It’s well established among biologists here that the large forests covering Germany after the end of the last Ice Age were poorer in species than the “cultural landscape” that developed later through human use. The big loss of biodiversity started with industrialization and the introduction of modern farming techniques. . . .

‘In Töpchin, local residents have warmed to their exotic neighbors. “At first, we were very skeptical,” says Kerstin Simon, who runs a farm with her husband Detlef. “We thought conservationists wanted to set more land aside for non-use.”

‘Soon, however, the Simon family discovered that the buffalo project was a great opportunity for them. They have allowed the animals to graze on their land, too, and they can slaughter an animal from time to time. Later this year, the Simons will start marketing meat and sausage from water buffaloes. “We reckon Berliner city dwellers will like it as a taste of the wild,” says Kerstin Simon.’

Read the whole article by Christian Schwägerl in Yale environment 360: Reviving Europe’s biodiversity by importing exotic animals, 10 Jan 2013.

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