10 Jan 2013: Report

Reviving Europe’s Biodiversity
By Importing Exotic Animals

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.

by christian schwägerl

With its tiny houses nestled along the main road and its red-brick church, Töpchin — just 25 miles outside of Berlin — is a traditional-looking Brandenburg village. But heading east through the marshland that borders the village, a visitor encounters the unexpected: five huge Asian water buffaloes.

The species was native to Europe until 10,000 years ago, when hunting shrunk its range to the continent’s far southeast. So Germans know these beasts only from pictures of them in fields and rice paddies in Asia. “Some people are really confused when they see the water buffaloes,” says Holger Rössling, the man who set the animals free in Töpchin in the summer of 2011. But the black creatures with massive horns and an impressively muscular build appear to be very much at ease in their new home. And they are meant to stay.

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.

“Our landscape is dominated by human use, so we should allow ourselves to be creative and flexible with how to manage it for maintaining biodiversity,” says Reinhold Leinfelder, a bio-geologist at the Free University of Berlin and former director of Berlin’s Natural History Museum.

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.

View gallery
Water buffaloes

Photo by Christian Schwägerl
Asian water buffalo now roam on open land just 25 miles from Berlin.
Within a short time, a number of similar projects like the one in Töpchin have sprung up across Germany. Only a few kilometers west of Berlin, the Heinz Sielmann Foundation has set free 19 Przhevalsky horses, natives of Mongolia, along with 41 European bison, in the Döberitzer heathland, a former military training ground. The goal is for the wild horses and European bison to regularly graze the area, cropping tree saplings and encouraging the spread of heat-loving species found in the heathland.

A third project near Berlin that uses large herbivores for conservation is set in another truly anthropogenic landscape — a former sewage treatment farm. In the 1980s, the sewage farm was shut down and discussions ensued about what to do with the property. Since 2011, the result is a project that aims to create one of the largest sylvan pasture areas in Europe.

“On more than 800 hectares, we are now trying to create this new landscape type that is ideal for rare and endangered species — an open forest,” says Andreas Schulze, project manager for Nature in the Barnim Region, a public/private partnership of local authorities, environmental organizations, organic farms, and private citizens. Schulze uses yet another mix of herbivores for the grazing: Koniks — ponies supposedly derived from the ancient European wild horse — as well as British cattle varieties like the White Park and the Scottish Highland, which are more robust and thus cope better with rugged and wet terrain than ordinary German cows. In Holland’s Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve, a similar mix of koniks and other herbivores is used to keep biodiversity levels high.

“Grazing with koniks and other large herbivores is the best approach for conservation in Germany,” says Josef Reichholf, a prominent zoologist and evolutionary biologist from Munich’s Technical University, who has long advocated the reintroduction of large herbivores to enhance biodiversity in
Unlike in the tropics, large parts of Europe’s biological diversity occurs outside of forests on meadows and heathlands.
Germany’s human-dominated landscape. Reichholf points out that the German landscape is exposed to a constant downpour of fertilizer from the sky, as car and factory exhausts add nitrous oxides to the atmosphere. This airborne fertilizer helps non-specialized plants grow, which reduces and finally excludes rare plant species adapted to nutrient-poor habitats. Dense vegetation also creates a damp, cool surface microclimate, which is detrimental to many species of insects and birds of the open landscape. Large herbivores crop this excessive plant growth, allowing rarer native species to flourish.

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 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.

German conservationists long tried to re-establish the pre-industrial landscape of the 18th and 19th centuries, following romantic ideals of beauty and untouched nature. Rössling’s project is departing from that traditional baseline — by many millennia. Buffalo are a reintroduction that reaches back more than 10,000 years. But the true reference point is the future, says Rössling. He sees himself building something new with the best available blend of species, even if they have not been native for a long time, or are not native at all.

“These projects make more diversity possible in a landscape that suffers from industrial agriculture,” says Gerhard Wiegleb, professor for ecology at the Brandenburg Technical University of Cottbus. He notes that water buffaloes long lived in Europe and that close relatives of the Przhevalsky horses also inhabited the continent until roughly 10,000 years ago. “They
One scientist sees himself building something new with the best available blend of species.
appear exotic, but they are not totally alien here in their ecological role as large herbivores,” says Wiegleb.

He says the key in reintroducing species that disappeared long ago is intensive monitoring of the effect of these large herbivores on the landscape. “Many projects are started with good intentions, but then there is a lack of scientific data to see what has happened,” says Wiegleb. The projects around Berlin are too new to have been effectively studied.

These projects highlight the challenges of nature conservation in what U.S. author Emma Marris calls the modern “rambunctious garden” of novel ecosystems. Many scientists now even proclaim a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which the long-held boundaries between nature and culture vanish due to the huge impact of humans on the planet.

At the Töpchin project, the Asian water buffaloes were introduced using European Union funds and an “eco-compensation” payment from the construction of the Berlin Schönefeld Airport, due to open in 2013. Over the past millennia of post-glacial landscape development, Brandenburg has harbored tens of thousands of hectares of uncommon habitats, such as calcareous fens, a subtype of wetland rich in calcium and home to marsh orchids and rare feather mosses.

Another increasingly rare habitat is the region’s inland salt meadows, located on the leftovers of an ancient ocean. These habitats are home to a unique mix of animal and plant species, like milk seaweed, that normally only occur far away along the North Sea and Baltic coasts. But in recent decades drainage and industrial agriculture have shrunk these habitats dramatically.

View gallery
Przewalski horses in Germany

Photo by Peter Nitschke
Przhevalsky horses, a rare species native to Mongolia, have been introduced to the Döberitzer heathland.
Closer to the city is the 3,400-hectare Döberitz heath reserve that for 300 years was used as a military training area — first by the Prussian army, then the Nazis, and until 1989 by Soviet forces. The heavy shelling and use of tanks created a landscape that is exceptionally open and nutrient-poor. A wide range of species that like sandy, warm habitats have moved in, including nightjars and hoopoes, two bird species that have become rare in recent decades. But given the nitrogen-enriched rain and dense forests in the region, the heathland would be overrun by trees without intensive human management.

In 2011, the Sielmann foundation began setting free European bison and introducing Przhevalsky horses, which largely went extinct in their native Mongolia in the 1960s but have since been bred by zoos, including one in Munich. The heath offers the bison and Przhevalsky horses a semi-natural habitat that they like, and they keep the landscape open for rare specialists, such as St. Bernard’s lily and marsh gentian. “The horses’ and bisons’ positive effect on the heathland is already measurable after a very short time,” says Peter Nitschke, head of the Döberitz heath project. The foundation is financing the project in part with entrance fees for a wildlife compound that has become popular for Berlin families.

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.

POSTED ON 10 Jan 2013 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Energy Oceans Policy & Politics Science & Technology Europe Europe 

COMMENTS


Instead of importing exotic water buffalo, what Europe aspires in doing is recreating the extinct auroch. The DNA is being extracted from domestic Spanish and Italian cattle, that have the DNA of the auroch, to recreate the species. Once they have been resurrected, they will be used to feed on the European beech, which has crowded out the native European vegetation.

Posted by Tim Upham on 10 Jan 2013


This article raises more questions than answers or even potential value. Based on what is presented, I don't see that much difference between these efforts and those of game farms, safari tours and the like where exotic mega-fauna are used to generate funds and showcase local activities. I'm concerned by the lack of apparent safeguards for such activities on this scale too.

The track record for introducing exotic species globally is full of examples why this concept is experimental at best. The reasoning presented seems flawed and limited and there is no indication given of any potential threats posed to native species and ecosystems. I see this as more "fad" than science but wish them well and hope that they monitor things closely enough to determine if problems develop in time to take corrective action or abort these projects.


Posted by Dale Steele on 11 Jan 2013


"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."

I think we should consider the possibility that the landscape up to the introduction of domesticated animals is a landscape suffering from human overpredation and thus an "unnatural"predominance of forest. The biodiversity associated with pastures certainly has not emerged as a result of domesticated animals but has rather escaped archeology as they have been very rare during the dense forest period that was a result of overhunting - a result of our first self induced ecodisaster the loss of an abundance of meat only alleviated by replacing the wild fauna with domesticated. The forest example of the tragedy of the commons. The lesson is that if we want biodiversity in self sustaining ecosystems we must separate those biodiversity ecosystems from the monoculture land. We already do when we talk about domesticated grazers but it has to go for all the grazers if we want them to fill their ecological niches in biodiversity reserves. No escape and free lunches in the monocultures.

Posted by Morten Lindhard on 12 Jan 2013


To strive for biodiversity is our choice, it is a cultural choice. Nature is indifferent, but if biodiversity and a well functioning ecosystem is what we want in some parts of our landscape then the only way to approach that will be to try to assemble the species or their closest relatives that once together shaped each other in what we call an ecosystem. The measure of our success is the degree to which biodiversity will sustain itself in such areas without our nursing or correcting intervention after our initial gathering of the relevant species and our separation with fences of the biodiversity ecosystem from our monoculture and industrial habitats. Or in other words. We have the highest biodiversity in our zoos and botanical gardens but the least ecosystem. Our landscape today is a mix of wilderness and zoo (culture and nursing dependent species). We can not escape the fact that by striving for biodiversity, biodiversity reserves becomes both the wildest and a result of the highest fine culture. If fine culture is what we call churches, art museums and other installations that only exist to serve our spiritual needs, then biodiversity reserves unharvested by us will fall in that category. I long for such a category of landscapes in Europe and I think it is a strong spiritual need for all of us. But I also think there should be another category of biodiversity ecosystem landscapes where we allow ourselves to play the part of the wise hunter and gatherer we have never been truly before. In any case it is not a question of abandoning nature to its own with indifference but to strive to reestablish the highest degree of biodiversity and selvregulation. This certainly should involve experiments with reintroduction of replacement for the species lost if there is any chance that these species can survive on their own and contribute to the survival of others.

Therefore we should welcome reintroduction experiments with water buffaloes, elephants and other animals that resemble their lost relatives as much as our cattle resemble the aurochs. Especially if these species are now becoming threatened where they live now they should be welcomed as other political/cultural refugees, if we see ourselves as cultured. I suddenly recall when Ghandi was asked "What di you think of western civilisation?" and he replied "It sounds like a great idea"

Posted by Morten Lindhard on 12 Jan 2013


Restoring populations of large herbivores, along with top predators should be a goal of all restoration. Using non-invasive exotic species in managed grazing programs can be beneficial for some disturbance-dependent ecosystems. The key concepts here are non-invasive and managed.

On the other hand, unlike what seems to be implied by certain comments, biodiversity is not simply the total tally of species within a given land area. If that were the case, maximizing the number of species in any given area would be a logical goal. But it's not the case and it's not a sustainable goal for restoration.

The idea that "nature" doesn't care about biodiversity is correct as a previous commenter suggests. However, the physics and biology of life do indicate that evolution of new species appears to be an outcome of energy moving through the global ecosystem and the resulting scramble for a piece of that energy by living organisms over time. How effective that race is for any given gene is changing as humans modify the environment in novel ways.

Posted by David Zaber on 14 Jan 2013


There is no contrast between the German projects and the aims of the spectacularly misnamed "Rewilding" Europe. Both are based on maintaining a herbivore pressure at similar levels to farming. It is just the Nature Development approach of the Netherlands given a different spin, and which continues to be entirely unsubstantiated by anything in the literature. Just how naive is the assertion of "Rewilding" Europe that because half the plant species of Europe appear to prefer an open habitat, that the natural state of Europe is half-open?

Posted by Mark Fisher on 14 Jan 2013


@Mark Fisher: Thanks for your comment, Mark! I find it important to note that the projects I describe in detail do not claim to restore an original state of nature or even wilderness. In contrast, as I describe, they try to be creative in managing biodiversity without a particular reference point in the past which departs from decades of trying to restore the 19th century cultural landscape of Germany. So the people running these projects are not naive, they rather take a pragmatic and experimental approach to keeping species richness high. Best, Christian

Posted by Christian Schwägerl on 22 Jan 2013


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christian schwägerlABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christian Schwägerl, is a freelance journalist who writes for GEO magazine and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Newspaper. Until last year he was Der Spiegel’s environment correspondent. He is the author, with Andreas Rinke, of the recently published 11 Looming Wars, which discusses potential future conflicts over technology, food, territory, and resources. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, Schwägerl wrote about a unique nature reserve being created along the spine of Germany’s former Iron Curtain and about the rise of urban beekeeping in Berlin.
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