This Fragile World of Aurochs
It’s six o’clock in the morning. Day is breaking. The sky is growing pale but the sun is still hiding behind the ridge. The Venus twinkles in the south-east. The fog is so dense that you cannot see a birch tree 20 steps away. The silence is only broken by the brook rustling somewhere deep down…
Trampling down the rusty ferns, I roll out of the tent anticipating a happy day: I’ll see aurochs today and, if lucky, will come close to them and make some exciting pictures.
In the Shebalinsky region of the Republic of Gorny Altai, not far from the settlement of Cherga, a pilot farm of the RAS Siberian Branch is situated. Grazing free-range here is the only herd of the aurochs to the east of the Urals. All the animals are Belovezh thoroughbreds — it’s the only such herb in Russia. The Cherga reserve now counts almost 40 animals which have descended from the eleven aurochs brought here 25 years ago.
Aurochs (Bison bonansus L.) is the only wild European species of the Bovinae subfamily, which has miraculously survived since the time of mammoths, hairy rhinoceros, and gigantic deers. The largest bulls may weigh up to 850 kilograms, sometimes even 1,200 kilograms, and be 1.8 meter high! A massive front part of the body, high withers and hump, a huge head with relatively small horns, and long thick hair add to the animal’s impressive appearance. Naturally, females are much smaller than males in size.
From time immemorial this mighty and beautiful animal has not only been hunted but also worshipped: it personified the power of the elements and was a symbol of native land.
In Eurasia the aurochs were widely spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast; aurochs’ bones were also found at primeval men’s sites in West Siberia and Altai. Quite recently, in the 18th—19th cc., the aurochs were not rare in Germany and Poland, in the Russian Empire and in the Caucasus, though by that time they no longer occupied the entire natural habitat within whose bounds they could move freely but were restricted to a few separate areas.
Poaching, wood cutting and burning, uncontrolled shooting of the animals at wartime, and infectious diseases, such as anthrax, foot-and-mouth disease, and brucellosis, which the aurochs contracted from the domestic cattle during epizootics led to their complete extinction in natural surroundings by the late 1920s. According to the 1926 international census, there were only 52 animals left in the zoos and national parks around the world— all of them descendants of 12 forebears (5 males and 7 females) that happened to be in the European zoos in the early 20th century.
Fortunately, the ancient giant got help — it came from those guilty of its extinction, the people. The aurochs were intentionally bred in zoological gardens, parks, and nurseries; special-purpose reserves were set up; young animals were subsequently reintroduced into natural surroundings — all these measures considerably increased the aurochs’ population. Since the animals were so few, it was important to keep close relations from mating. Towards this end, the International Breeding Book was created using which one could trace the pedigree and migration of each animal.
Today, the first stage of aurochs’ preservation is completed: the danger of extinction of this rare species has been averted. Nevertheless, in 1996 IUCN classified the aurochs as “EN” (“endangered”) with respect to the two criteria: “C” (declining in number and severely fragmented populations) and “E” (fast reduction in the total number of the species). The Red Book of the Russian Federation refers the aurochs to the first category, i. e., “the species whose extinction is imminent”.
As a result of these international activities, by the end of 1997 the world had 1,096 aurochs kept in zoos, nurseries, and other reserves, and 1,829 wildlife individuals.
The aurochs resemble the North-American buffalos. These animals can cross in any combinations producing numerous progeny. This is the reason why some zoologists tend to regard them as the same species. In both animals the diploid number of chromosomes is 60, which brings them closer to real bulls Bos (2n = 58—60) but sets them apart from the Asian (Bubalus) and African (Sinceros) buffalos, whose chromosome number is 46—50 and 52—54, respectively.
The results of molecular-genetic, cytogenetic, and biochemical investigations confirm that the aurochs and bison are very close, if not identical. These ungulates have a lot in common in terms of ecology, population dynamics, social structure, and behavior. All this supports the hypothesis that this genus has descended from the same species.
At the same time, in some genetic pedigree trees the aurochs and bison not only stand apart from the other Bos species but also differ from each other, especially in terms of blood antigen frequencies. According to the well-known connoisseur of the ungulates A. A. Danilkin, a professor of the Severtsev Institute of the Ecological and Evolutional Problems, this difference may derive from hybridization with domestic cattle: in some populations, the haplotype (gene combination) of mitochondrial DNA characteristic of large horned cattle has been detected.
In the opinion of Russian zoologists G. S. Rautian and B. A. Kalabushkin (2003), “modern aurochs and bison are separate species occupying specific ecological niches and displaying important morphological distinctions. However, they diverged quite recently (in terms of geological time), which accounts for gene resemblance with respect to various characteristics, such as free inter-species hybridization, homology of blood groups and separate erythrocytic antigens, etc.”. Up-to-date molecular-genetic research into the genome DNA of the aurochs’ and bison’s teeth support this hypothesis.
On the other hand, as Danilkin fairly comments, “taxonomy is subjective and, quite frequently, scientists’ opinions on the same results differ radically. The research conducted fails to give an unambiguous answer as to the status of the aurochs and bison. A comprehensive investigation, however, tends to support the monotypic structure of the Bison genus with two (or three) subspecies: B. bison bison, B. bison athabascae (North American steppe and forest bison, respectively) and B. bison bonasus, or the aurochs” (Danilkin, 2005, pp. 16—76).
The adoption of such a genus structure would allow us to solve the acute problem connected with inbreeding and its consequences, namely, degeneration of both the aurochs and bison, which becomes increasingly common in our times; it would also allow us to reintroduce the animals to their natural surroundings and restore their natural habitats.
In this country, however, the situation was not as favorable as in Europe: if in the mid-80s the USSR had over a thousand aurochs (including 300 in Russia), by the mid-90s the populations of thoroughbred aurochs in the Caucasus were practically destroyed, and in Russia there were fewer than 200 aurochs left.
Unfortunately, it is not easy to remedy the situation: despite the aurochs’ high adaptability, the number of the animals doesn’t increase quickly even when they are guarded; females do not have calves every year, and, as a rule, they have only one calf. Also, mating of close relatives produces a negative effect: the calves are often born weak. Thus, out of the nine calves born at the Cherga farm this year only six calves survived. A signal of degeneration is a continuing decrease in the aurochs’ size. In this connection, pouring in some “fresh blood” is a topical issue, and not only for the Cherga aurochs but for all aurochs inhabiting Russia.
It has grown light. In the sun the yellow leaves in birch trees look golden. The day promises to be superb, there is not a cloud in the sky. Fog has vanished and the air is clear and transparent: exactly what is needed for shooting. And now, on to the aurochs while the sun is not too high. I’m fastening a larger (140—400 mm) telephoto lens on my loyal Nikon D 200 and off we go!
A few minutes’ trip up a steep winding path takes us to the nursery gate. In a moment, we will see the legendary creatures — needless to say we feel awesome.
About a dozen of aurochs are grazing on a hillock in a birch grove. They are mostly cows; next to them are three calves born this year: two of them are reddish-brown, and the third is of a darker color. A young bull is grazing nearby. The worker of this pilot farm A. Popugaev says that this herd also includes an old bull but at the moment it is not to be seen.
I make a few snapshots at 50—60 meters. The animals look very calm and pay no attention. (Actually, the aurochs do not have keen eyesight, and we are wearing camouflage and doing our best to move around quietly.) I’m trying to come closer: lick my finger to detect the wind direction and approach the animals windward. Now the herd is moving slowly only 25—30 meters away. Leaning on the trunk of a broken birch, I start snapping. My hiding place turns out to be a good choice: the animals take their time moving past me as though posing, in turn, in front of the camera. One could only dream of such a parade!
In 1997 the Interregional Program for Russian Aurochs Conservation was developed by the State Committee of Environmental Protection (SCEP) and governors of the Orel, Kaluga, and Bryansk oblasts. In the following year, a working group on aurochs and bison was set up with the SCEP and charged with developing the “Strategy for the conservation of Russian Aurochs” (this strategy was adopted in 2002). Since 1998 activities on conservation and increase of aurochs’ population in Russia (including the formation of the Orel-Bryansk population and trans-boundary population in the Carpathians, and keeping of the breeding book) have been supported by the WWF Large Herbivores Initiative and financed by the Dutch government.
Back in the fall of 1996, the WWF representative office in Russia began to implement the project of establishing the first large wildlife population of aurochs in the Orel-Bryansk region. With the support of the Orel oblast administration a national park — the so-called Orlovskoye Polesie — was created; enclosures for the animals put up; supervision and care of the animals organized; and means for their transportation prepared.
Time flies. The aurochs are going back to the thick forest — it’s time to finish the shooting. This morning I managed to make over 200 snapshots, and not only with the large photo lens but also with the 28—105 mm lens mounted on the second camera. I wish I had fetched a tripod! Never mind, will do next time — I’m certain I’m coming back here again next year together with my friends: “young naturalist-photographer” from Academgorodok Academician V. V. Vlasov, Director of the Institute of Chemical Biology and Fundamental Medicine, RAS Siberian Branch, and Prof. P. M. Chumakov from the Moscow Institute of Molecular Biology, RAS.
On the way back I suddenly realized that I couldn’t stop smiling and could still see these majestic creatures among white birch trees, bathed in the sun. I had felt the same sheer delight for the first time during the trip we, schoolchildren and members of the Young Biologists’ Circle of the Moscow Zoo (which was a good start for many well-known biologists), made to the Belovezh Pushcha in 1960. I’ve seen aurochs and bison lots of times since then, both in this country and abroad, and each time I was happy to be back to this living fairy-tale of my childhood.
The remarkable Russian writer and connoisseur of the living beings K. G. Paustovsky said that to protect and to love motherland means to protect and to love nature. Let us put this motto into practice and conserve the aurochs, these legendary relics, living personification of freedom, power, and quiet dignity — the qualities our up-to-date society so often lacks!
The first aurochs were brought from the Oksky and Prioksko-Terrasny nature reserves — subsequently, these reserves operated as quarantine stations for the aurochs transported from Europe. European emigres that were most valuable genetically stayed in the reserves for further breeding. All in all, 55 aurochs have been brought into the region to this day. The population began to grow, and the animals were introduced in the neighboring areas.
Conservation of the aurochs, which is a living relic, a magnificent monument to nature, the largest and one of the most beautiful animals of our country, is a national challenge that has to be met in the near decades. The Cherga nature reserve can play an important role here: it has a privileged position thanks to its remoteness from the European Russia, where wildlife Caucasian-Belovezh aurochs and aurochs-bison live. This isolation prevents involuntary contact between the Cherga thoroughbreds and their mixed-blood relatives and minimizes the risk of contracting infectious pathogens in case of epizootics in the European part of Russia.