In this time of troubles, when Ukraine is weltering in a morass of economic and political problems, when the lawmakers and state officials do not care a curse of both the state’s laws and fate, when the sayings “sink or swim” or “if one may, am I red-headed?” have become life concepts for the many, there are always hostages of the situation in such times of troubles. Survival of the hostages depends on remnants of conscience, responsibility, and humaneness of the rest. The case for our state is as follows: if charitable actions for people are still possible, animals may only rely upon their natural capacities. Consequently, the depth of tragedy and hopelessness for many victims is caused by the fact that the mankind has long ago irreversibly destroyed the mere conditions, without which these “God’s creatures” are just incapable of independent life and development. Incredible as it may seem from a philistine’s viewpoint (for adepts it is the law of nature), the most strong and big animals, compared to whom a man is an “earthborn worm”, are doomed to rapid disappearance, unless a man changes his mind and lends his aid to them.
Among the examples of this tragedy with an already centuries-old tradition is the fate of a wild wood ox – the European bison, which had a “miraculous escape” and survived by early 20th century. As far back as a thousand years ago, migrations of numerous flocks were a usual seasonal occurrence in Europe, though by 1927 the last European bison disappeared. Only 53 specimens were saved in zoos, descending from only 12 parents (!). If it were not for scientists’ sagacity and international panhuman care, naphthalene and shaggy stuffed animals in museums would be the only thing we would have got. In order to save the species, people settled for their hybridization with the American bison. In spite of thousands of years of independent existence, both species preserved a capacity to couple and reproduce viable and fertile calves. But then came a hard time of assiduous “separation of the husk from the grain”, i.e. regeneration of genetically pure European bisons from the increasing stock of animals. This process is still in progress and the problem of “American blood” and high inbreeding (affinity breeding) is as urgent as 70 years ago. Nevertheless, up to three thousand of European bisons were found in the world by late 20th century. However, this statistics can scarcely be consoling, if a more detailed consideration is given to the issue.
The problem is that a lion’s share of the regenerated stock was located in the Eastern Europe, i.e. in the states that have gone through tremendous economic and political shocks. The former system that has saved the European bisons collapsed, and the new one is weltering in grabbing and cupidity. However mournful it is, Ukraine demonstrated another shameful example in respect to the European bisons, similarly to many other aspects of life. By the time of gaining the independence, we had up to 685 animals and the stock was among the most numerous in the world, we were proud of the fact. Now approximately 200 bisons have left, and still there is no firm belief in this figure. But not 485 animals have disappeared! If allow for annual increase – lot more than 1,000 European bisons has gone! What has happened to them? One can easily understand, knowing morals and manners of our society.
The problem of European bison is just a reflection of our general problems. Currently, there are no state programs in Ukraine dealing with protection and regeneration of the European bisons. Nobody is involved in the issues of inbreeding and selection. The country is lack of any (!) scientist specializing in breeding of bisons. Nobody teaches them. Nowadays only a quarter of the remaining animals live within the reserved areas, which usually do not have high security conditions of. The rest dwell in hunting (!) areas. For many farms the European bison is only a back-breaking burden. Under the conditions of semi-free keeping (within a territory with limited boundaries), the animals are more like cows and continuously need extra nutrition and care. Their natural striving for distant trips is a pressing problem both for the bisons themselves and for adjacent agricultural areas. Consciousness of our people has no taboo regarding bisons: the animals are immediately killed. In the time of disastrous decrease in its quantity, the European bison, as if a mockery, has only the sixth protection category as per The Red Book of Ukraine, i.e. as “regenerated species”. At the same time, we have an official act stipulating for a “selective” shooting of the animals. It is not unduly difficult to guess that the reasons for such a “culling” are usually extremely “ponderable” and have nothing to do with their selection. There are up to 7 sites in the Internet (Russian, Ukrainian, Ukrainian-Turkish), which offer services in organization of a “tsar’s hunt” on the European bison in Ukraine. Their rates impress: between 300 and 4500 euros depending on a tour operator and a trophy value. At the same time, it is well to bear in mind that only visiting guests usually put hands into a pocket, though representatives of local gentlefolk quite often do not even find time to get a false permission. During the whole period of our independence, only 2 (!) men have been arraigned to the court, and therewith 1,000 animals have disappeared! Moreover, even in the cases when money was paid for the intended purpose, it in any way helped prosperity of the remaining European bisons, their number has been reducing and is still going down.
Thus, principal reasons of the European bison’s tragedy in Ukraine are caused not only by the absence of vital space and impoverished genetics of the remaining species. Much more important causes are presented by negligent and irresponsible attitude of those state structures and officials, whose responsibility is to protect the kind, as well as by avidity and unscrupulousness of the mighty and rich. As many justifications as possible may be found for those, who ventured a “sale” or murder of the European bison for the sake of their own survival in the conditions of completely absent state support. But there is no a single acquittal to a man for whom the “highest pleasure” is a murder for murder and a neglect of the Law.
Another reason of the European bison’s tragedy is a lack of regularly and widely distributed information. This reason has actually impelled me to write this feature. In the Soviet Union, no matter what attitude to that time we have, the European bison was a symbol of the state environmental policy. He used to be talked about in schools and on TV. There were meetings and conferences devoted to the problems of the European bison. Dozens of bison nurseries were created, hundreds of specialists were educated. Our neighbors in Belarus and Russia managed to preserve such an attitude (or a similar one) resulting in an increase in the total number of the livestock. We could only dream about achievements in Poland. A number of their specialists in bison breeding is probably more than a total quantity of all our practicing mammalogists (zoologists studying mammals), and the amount of the European bisons has exceeded 900 in the Republic of Poland! Alas! We have sunk into the situation with many zoologists (whom the knowledge about the situation with the Red Book’s species would do no harm by virtue of their professional competence), when the only thing they knew about the European bison is that this animal may be found in Ukraine. Certainly, against such a background, the most sacred principles may become an object of somebody’s unpunished pleasures.
What actually can we do, if we are not even able to rescue our own life? The answers are not in the least obvious, especially if the country is in a state of chaos and stagnation for 20 years already. But the one statement is undoubted: a unified public opinion is needed. Whoever is asked – a street trader or a techie engineer, an ethnic Ukrainian or an immigrant from Vietnam, a believer or a men, who lost faith – wherever in Donetsk Basin or in Volhynia, 99% of population in Ukraine should answer: “The European bison is our national symbol, it is necessary to love and protect him”. Under such conditions, officials would facilitate solving of bureaucratic issues and “oligarchs” would more quickly grasp that an own bison nursery is far more prestigious than a photo above a dead body. And after this, perhaps, “common people” will start respecting written rules. Maybe, I am too naive, but it is difficult to imagine a mentally sane man, who is obsessed by Gerostrat’s glory and by all means is ready to kill the last European bison. I believe that people can possess the VALUES COMMON TO ALL MANKIND.
Recently, environmental protectors, «the green», and some scientists have deployed a movement in defense of the European bison. Some of its aspects are reasonable and successful, some are clumsy and some extremist, but the first changes have been made. Development of the state program was started, legal claims were submitted, orders on creation of nature reserves within habitats of the European bisons were issued, the provision permitting selective shooting was abolished, establishment of any nurseries lacking reliable security guarantees was blocked, press conferences were conducted, etc. Meanwhile, this movement is a movement of a few. But it will become much more broad and strong, if each of us votes in support of the European bison. Well, and if somebody helps with money or actions then, as the saying goes, glory and honour! Many sins may be prayed for forgiveness by noble acts.
According to the oriental calendar, the next year is considered to be the year of the ox. Let us devote it to the European bison rescue!
120 European bisons lived within the Danevske Hunt Reserve in Chernigov Region in 1992. It was one of the greatest subpopulations in Ukraine. The last 7 animals perished in spring 2007. Pair of European bisons and the Przhevalskiy horses were brought into the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone in 1998. One of the bisons perished almost at once as a result of trauma, another animal died in late 2000 as a result of irresponsible attitude. One of the nearest, yet survived groups is kept in special hunt reserve “Zalesie” located in the Kyiv Region (about 10 beasts), and up to thirty bisons reside in the Summy Region. The most numerous groups of European bisons (up to 60–80 animals in each) have been preserved in the Chernivtsi and Vynnytsia Regions. For detailed information about the European bison fate in Ukraine refer to the web-site of Kyiv Ecological and Cultural Center at: http://www.ecoethics.ru/b83/
The author of publication – S.Gashchak
Deputy Director of International Radioecology Laboratory (Slavutych),
Ph.D. (Ukrainian title: Candidate) in Biological Sciences.