Water Buffalo, Extinct in Europe for 10,000 Years, Spotted Outside of Berlin

A bold experiment employs animals from distant lands to rebalance ecosystems.

Asian Water Buffalo in Germany
Asian water buffalo will graze in areas that German cows won't. (Photo: Rajarshi Banerji/Getty Images)
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

Five Asian water buffalo walk into a German bar...okay, so it’s not a bar. But there are Asian water buffalo meandering through the marshlands of a German village outside of Berlin. The sight isn’t just odd, it’s downright unheard of: Water buffalo have been extinct in Europe for over 10,000 years. But now the beasts are back as part of an unusual ecology experiment.

According to Yale’s Environment 360,  the buffalo landed in the German village of Töpchin at the behest of the Brandenburg Nature Conservation Fund. Their purpose is to graze the area’s threatened marshlands because German cows, presumably with some ecological chip on their shoulder, are no longer interested in grazing in such wet or nutrient-poor environments. So far, Asian water buffalo appear to be less picky.

It’s an unorthodox experiment to say the least. While many of the world’s conservancy initiatives focus on protecting native plants and animals from human intervention, the Töpchin project serves as an example of a burgeoning trend called “rewilding.” Its focus is on strategically placing large exotic herbivores in new territories in order to enhance the diversity of vegetation.

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The Bradenburg experiment has already spawned two other similar projects in the country. Germany's Döberitzer heathland, a former military training ground, is newly home to 19 native-Mongolian horses and 41 European bison. With both species grazing, they’re munching away at tree saplings, thereby cutting down on the area’s shade cover. Why is that a good thing? Because it encourages the spread of heat-loving species in the territory.

And another project near Berlin, which uses large herbivores, is creating one of the largest sylvan pastures in Europe from what was formerly an abandoned sewage treatment farm.

The effects of such endeavors could be as beneficial for humans as they are for the environment. Projects like Rewild Europe, done in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, seek to populate wild animals in the abandoned and barren expanses of European countryside. If the venture works, those areas could promise viable business opportunities for conservation-based work, as well as for the small farmers and herdsmen who abandoned those lands when they stopped being able to earn a living off them.

But still, why not focus on restoring these environments to their pre-human state and just keep people away from them? Aside from the logistical impossibilities, Environment 360 reports that people are not the problem. The difficulties facing these lands didn’t start with humans, they started with industrialization, which choked biodiversity, and therefore life, right out of the Earth. People can still exist in these areas, they just can’t use factory farming and industrialized production if they want them to flourish. And in the meantime, rewilding could resuscitate lost vegetation and hinder the further degradation of our lands.

It’s too early to tell if any of these experiments can be classified as a success, and not everyone in conservancy believes in their principles. Some, like ecology author Michael Viney, bring up fair criticisms of the practice. Still, the process is relatively new and the initiatives in Germany show early promise.

If rewilding results in a win for the environment and for ethical business practices, perhaps we'll come to find that people and animals can respectfully coexist, provided we implement a more thoughtful approach.

Do you believe rewilding could solve our ecological problems, or is it another example of humanity interfering where it doesn't belong? Let us know in the Comments.

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