Ranger Donovan Wright prepares to work with the long-awaited wild bison making its return to the ancient Kent forest in the UK.
He is one of the newest rangers hired to welcome the four bison arriving next spring as part of their Blean Woods rewilding conservation project near Canterbury, England.
“We put up fences. We put up a bison pen. We build ponds,” Wright said. As it happens host Carol Off.
“In addition to taking care of the woods, we will also help save an animal that was almost on the brink of extinction.”
The four European bison will be the first to roam the UK after the species was near extinction nearly a century ago. Most of these bison died from habitat degradation and fragmentation, logging, and endless hunting and poaching.
The Kent Wildlife Trust and the Wildwood Trust have teamed up to reintroduce bison and increase ecological diversity.
Wright sees bison as “eco-engineers” with “jet fuel for biodiversity”.
The large land animal can naturally fell trees by rubbing against them and feeding on the bark. They can open up a canopy in the pine forest and allow light to penetrate down to the ground, which can revive the ecosystem.
“If you look at the Blean Woods as they are today, we have this beautiful dense canopy atop the woods. Unfortunately, below, not much is happening,” he said.
“That’s why bison are so important … By opening up that canopy, they create this rich mosaic of habitat, and that’s where you get this greater variety and abundance of species.”
It’s incredible, an incredible story.– Donovan Wright, ranger
Even when bison roam the woods, Wright says they can pore through the dense undergrowth for different species of insects and wildflowers. Dead trees can also become hotbeds for woodpeckers, bats and fungi.
“Sometimes they’re referred to as umbrella species because they really protect the quality of life of other species within the ecosystem,” the buffalo said. “Just like an umbrella protects you from the rain.”
This will be the first time Wright has taken care of bison in over 20 years as a ranger. The closest animal he worked with was the Cape buffalo. In southern Africa he cared for elephants, rhinos and other large animals.
Recently he trained alongside his co-ranger Tom Gibbs for two weeks in the Netherlands and saw European bison grazing in nature reserves.
Six thousand years ago, the Steppe Bison roamed the UK freely until hunting and changes in terrestrial habitat led to extinction all over the world. The European bison is a descendant of this species and has recently been moved from “vulnerable” to “near threatened” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
“All the European bison we have today are descended from 12 individuals,” Wright said of their near extinction, which Polish environmentalists have helped prevent by raising the remaining bison kept in zoos in the 1920s. “It’s amazing, an amazing story.”
Rangers will constantly monitor genetically fragile species to help them grow into a strong herd.
As for the ancient Kent woods, he believes the European bison is the key to revitalization.
“We tried it the traditional way, you know, with heavy machinery. And unfortunately, human management alone is not enough to create the types of habitats that we need for species to survive,” he said. Wright said.
“Give nature the freedom and space to heal itself. She has a remarkable ability to heal.”
Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview conducted by Abby Plener.