While on a recent trip at the Bavarian Forest National Park (BFNP) in southeastern Germany, I visited the Haus zur Wildnis (House of Wilderness), a small zoo situated directly in the forest that keeps lynxes, grey wolves, Przewalski horses and Auroch-type cattle.
I could spot five grey wolves (Canis lupus) out of 12. The animals are kept in a small 4,5 ha enclosure that appears larger only because the fence is concealed by a natural bush cover. To put things into perspective, in the wild wolf territories can reach hundreds of square kilometers, like in southern and central Europe where typical ranges are comprised between 82 and 243 sq km. Size varies substantially depending on prey density, vegetation type and other factors.
Wolves are not candidates for reintroduction at the BFNP, but isolated individuals that migrated from neighboring Eastern European regions (Czech Republic, Slovakia and Saxony) are occasionally sighted in the area.
In another part of the zoo are exhibited Przewalski horses and Auroch-type cattle under the label “European prehistoric heritage”.
Generally presented as the last extant wild horse, the Przewalski horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) really is a living relic of prehistoric times. There is however no firm evidence that it ever inhabited western or central Europe. The species roamed the steppes of East Asia during the Holocene period and was extirpated in the wild in 1969. Since the late 1970’s, conservationists across the world have worked hard to regenerate the species through various management programs of the small captive population. In the early 1990’s, specimens were reintroduced in the wild in Mongolia, where all captive founders originated from and where the species was last spotted prior to obliteration.
Przewalski horses can be observed closely at the Haus zur Wildnis. During my fall visit, the band was grazing in the enclosure that runs along the train tracks, near the reconstituted prehistoric cave (see map). With a little incentive, the horses approached and I could appreciate their unique features and even pet them through the fence. Reading about these special equids before meeting them will give more sense to your encounter.
A herd of auroch-looking cows grazed across from the horses. Aurochs (Bos primigenius) are the wild ancestors of our modern domestic cattle. They originated in India about 2 million years ago before spreading to Western Europe and Northern Africa during the Late Pleistocene (approx. 126,000 to 11,700 years ago) and the Holocene (current era). The famous prehistoric cave wall representations of the Grotte de Lascaux (France) and other prehistoric sites evidence their presence in Europe around 25,000 years ago. The independent waves of domestication that took place from 10,000 years ago gave rise to two main subspecies of cattle―humped (zebu) in India and humpless (taurine) in the Middle-East. Africa might have been another domestication zone. The aurochs that lived in Europe do not appear to have been domesticated and DNA research suggest that modern European cattle descend from Middle-Eastern aurochs with possible introductions from Northern Africa. Meanwhile, wild Aurochs continued to be tirelessly hunted and suffered from the development of agriculture. Their population quickly diminished and by the 13th century was confined to remote areas of central Europe. The very last wild individuals were sighted in Poland in 1627, the official year of the species’ extinction.
At the dawn of the 20th century, the Heck brothers (Germany) decided to resuscitate the beast by crossing together the most rustic domestic cattle breeds. The physical resemblance was overall attained despite significant differences with the original auroch type. The animal referred to as “Heck cattle” became popular among some German and French farmers who now breed them as meat cows. The Dutch Tauros Project (launched under the aegis of the European Centre of Biodiversity at the beginning of the century) seeks to perfect the appearance of the bovines through selective breeding and realease specimens in semi-wild reserves to recreate the natural dynamic of European ecosystems.
The Tauros Project initiative is part of a larger venture undertaken by the Dutch foundation Rewilding Europe, which goal is to “rewild at least one million hectares of land [across ten different regions across Europe] by 2022”. Natural dynamics are at the core of this ambitious project which relies on wildlife to regenerate European ecosystems; a number of species like the European Bison will be brought back to the wild. Check out the Annual Review 2013 for more information.
Home ranges, movements and activity of wolves (Canis lupus) in the Dalmatian part of Dinarids, Croatia, J. Kusak et al., Eur J Wildl Res (2005) 51, pp 254–262.
A Complete Mitochondrial Genome Sequence from a Mesolithic Wild Aurochs (Bos primigenius), C. J. Edwards et al., Plos One, Vol. 5 Issue 2 (2010), pp 1-13.
The origin of European cattle: Evidence from modern and ancient DNA, A. Beja-Pereira et al., PNAS, Vol. 103 No. 21 (2006), pp 8113-8118.
For an extensive bibliography on the Przewalski horse, please refer to An encounter with the Przewalski horse at the Bavarian Forest National Park, a story of the wild horses in twelve parts.