Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Saturday, 1 October 2011 12:00 UK

Reversal of fortunes for Europe's 'gentle' giant

The European bison
The shy animals appear gentle but can attack at any time

Europe's largest mammal, the bison, is slowly returning from the brink of extinction after a series of successful breeding programmes as Rob Cameron in the Czech Republic found out.

I do not think the man from the ministry liked journalists very much.

Certainly he seemed less than impressed with us as we clambered from the sweaty confines of our car.

I suddenly felt ridiculous in my shorts and sandals, appropriate for a blistering afternoon in Prague but hardly suitable for a bison hunt.

My colleague meanwhile, a friend from French radio, was wearing his favourite flat cap - at least it was not a beret, I suppose - and had a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

Jiri Janota, the head of the military forests and farmland department of the Czech defence ministry, took one look at us and checked his watch.

"All right then," he said. "I guess you'd better follow me." And with that, he jumped back into his 4x4 and sped off.

We struggled to keep his jeep in sight as he barrelled down a metalled road into a wilderness of thick forest, which gradually gave way to sun-drenched, grassy plains.

This was the Ralsko nature reserve, formerly the Ralsko military training ground, and for decades it was off-limits to mere mortals like us.

After 15 minutes or so, Jiri's vehicle lurched off to the right and skidded down a gravel track, which ended abruptly in front of a large wooden gate.

At this point he decided my humble Skoda Fabia could go no further - I had already heard several ominous clunks and was not about to argue - so we climbed into his car.

The 4x4 crept into the sloping meadow, rolling silently through the grass.

You might think a 2m high creature that can weigh almost a tonne would be hard to miss, but we drove round and round that field, the car dipping into little hollows and cresting gentle peaks, before Jiri decided the bison were hiding in the forest.

And indeed, there they were - their brown, shaggy coats almost indistinguishable from the trees around them.

Fearful creatures

Jiri managed to coax them out into the open, and they stood, staring dumbly at us.

The bison in their enclosure
The herd will soon be able to roam freely through the reserve

The previous day I had one of those pointless telephone conversations which radio journalists often have to make before embarking on a story.

I had called Jiri to ask him if his bison made any noises I might be able to record for use in my report.

For a minute he was silent. "They graze," he answered.

In the event, even the sound of bison munching grass would prove impossible to capture, as in addition to being very big animals, they are also rather shy and tend to run away when they see humans.

This is perhaps understandable, as we spent several millennia running after them with spears.

The spears were replaced by arrows, and finally by guns.


Americans get a lot of stick for slaughtering large numbers of bison but we Europeans were not much better

In 1919, a Polish poacher shot Europe's last wild bison. And that should have been the end of that.

It was not, thankfully. Ten years later, a bison restitution centre opened in Poland, using some of the few dozen animals still surviving in zoos.

A breeding programme followed, protected by everyone from the Nazis to the Soviets; poaching the animals was at one time punishable by death.

In 1951, the first bison were reintroduced to the wild, at the Bialowieza Forest, which straddles Poland and Belarus.

Today, that population has grown to 800.

The animals have been reintroduced all over central Europe, and bison bonasus has been taken off the endangered species list.

But back to our bison, who were themselves brought here from Poland, distant descendants of the original breeding pair.

Twist of fate

At present, under Jiri's watchful eye, they are getting used to the taste of Czech grass, 200 years after they were hunted to extinction in this land.

Jiri Janota takes photos from his car
Their new home has been cleared of mines and unexploded ordnance

They seem to like it - the bull and five cows have since produced two young.

And soon, perhaps next year, the herd will be freed from the confines of two meadows and a patch of forest and allowed to roam freely throughout the Ralsko reserve - all 100 square miles (250 sq km) of it.

It is certainly an odd twist of fate, both for an animal that virtually died out thanks to man's rapacious greed, and for an area of land that for several centuries has been pummelled by artillery shells and torn up by tank tracks.

Now, 20 years since the last Red Army troops loaded their tanks onto trains for the long ride back to Russia, this wild, undulating land, cleared of mines and unexploded ordnance, will once again become home to Europe's largest native mammal.

Americans get a lot of stick for slaughtering impossibly large numbers of bison in their drive to conquer the West.

But we Europeans were not much better, cutting down these massive, gentle beasts for their hides and meat, and turning their horns into novelty drinking vessels.

They will never again roam Czech forests in the same huge numbers.

But eight of them returned to the wild is, I suppose, a start.

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