Four startled bison backed out of their travelling crates, looked around suspiciously, then strolled contentedly across the field. Finally, they were home, home on the range where they had been declared nearly extinct.
The big shaggy two-year-olds, who look much like the American buffalo, had been driven 1,600km from a nature reserve in the Moscow region to south-west Russia, where the European bison had roamed for centuries in the North Caucasus mountains.
They had been raised by the World Wildlife Fund, known simply as WWF in Russia, and brought there on a rainy day in October in yet another attempt by man to undo the damage he has done to the world around him. The European bison had disappeared here in 1927, was brought back in the 1970s, then killed off again in the 1990s when the people of this region, called the Republic of Karachay-Cherkessia, were thrown into poverty after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This bison meat is no gift to the palate. But people were hungry and ate them.
Only 13 bison remained in the Teberdinsky Nature Reserve, said Igor Chestin, director of WWF Russia. At that number, the bison will not breed, he said. But the four just released, and another four brought here in September, are expected to provide enough choice of mates to get some serious courting under way.
The bison had been shut up in smallish crates – so they wouldn’t bang around and hurt themselves – and lifted on to the back of a flatbed trailer by crane. The trip, from the Oksky Reserve south of Moscow, took four days. The last 8km were the most challenging, with the semi-tractor trailer beating its way through a forest and churning in the middle of a fast-moving and rocky mountain stream.
One by one, the crane lifted the crates gently to the ground, although one of the bison – in the terrible twos, after all – made his impatience known with a vigorous tantrum, butting and kicking, sending the crate swinging unpredictably as it was lowered to the grass. No matter.
Park rangers, along with Chestin, clambered on top and lifted the doors, one by one. Out came the bison – they grow two to three metres long and tip the scales at 300kg and more, much more, with some reaching 900kg.
They backed out, turned around, galloped a few steps as if to be sure they were free, then surprisingly quickly became part of the landscape, calmly grazing and drifting together toward the trees without even an angry glance backward at the crates.
“They have short memories,” said Maria Vinokurova, a spokesman for WWF who was watching the release.
The Teberdinsky Reserve, settled in an area of the North Caucasus , has plenty for the bison diet: leaves, twigs, bark, ferns, moss and mushrooms.
The bison will be kept within a five-hectare fenced-in area for about a month, until park rangers are sure they are healthy and adapting. “They don’t have natural enemies,” Chestin said, “so they can easily repopulate to what they were 100 years ago. Sometimes a wolf will get a smaller one, but not the big ones.”
The females are in charge here, leading herds of about 25 bison each, Chestin said, but a couple of herds often will graze as a group with as many as 100 animals gathered together. After mating, the males usually go off by themselves.
The arrival of the bison was witnessed by a herd of reporters and photographers, who were loaded into GAZ heavy-duty army-type buses for the trip through the forest. The cabins, holding about 20 people, were perched high atop enormous tires, which rocked along the woods and for an alarmingly long time through the rushing water. Unlike the bison, they were thrown around the cabin with abandon. A sign on the back of the truck described the cargo: PEOPLE.
With the bison free, the people got to work. Agreements were signed by Akhmed Bilalov, chairman of the board of North Caucasus Resorts, a government-backed company that is building a ski resort nearby, the WWF, and Rashid Temrezov, the head of Karachay-Cherkessia. They all promised to protect the bison, encourage environmental tourism and keep the region safe for nature.
The signing took place in a big white tent, complete with sound system, outside the fence. North Caucasus Resorts had set up a celebratory buffet in an adjacent white tent, where a spread worthy of a five-star hotel miraculously appeared.
Chafing dishes warmed lamb and chicken kebabs. Delicate puffs of pastry held dabs of salad and shrimp. Apricots pressed into the shape of rosebuds decorated assorted nuts and dates. Sweet pastry baked in the shape of mushrooms and dipped in chocolate circled mounds of cream puffs. Corks popped from bottles of Crimean sparkling wine, local wines and cognac were poured. All of it had travelled over rocky land and water, without a flake out of place, here, further even than the middle of nowhere.
The rain was pouring, contradicting the song where the buffalo roam and the skies are not cloudy all day. At least there was not a discouraging word.
The WWF plans to bring the Persian leopard back next, Chestin said, making the region as it was a hundred years ago. Later, on yet another bumpy bus ride, he offered a toast to animal and man: the bison, he said, enhance the landscape of the forest. And just as the bison improve life, so do some people.
• This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from the Washington Post