by Christian Schwägerl, via Yale Environment 360
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 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.
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.
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