Saturday, May 16, 2015

Goering’s Bison

Perhaps one of the weirdest stories about animal conservation involves the strange and twisting story about the European Bison, or Wisent.  These strange, large herbivores—distant cousins to the American Buffalo—once survived only in a few scattered zoos.  Today, they number in the thousands, with over two thousand reintroduced into the wild.

The largest wild animal left in Europe (bulls can weigh more than a ton), once had a range that stretched across the continent of Europe.  Where the American bison prefers to live on the grassy prairies, its slightly larger European cousins lived in forests, and as man converted the continents forests into farmland, its habitat shrank rapidly.  The bison disappeared from Greece by the 3rd century AD, from Gaul by the 8th century AD, and from England by the 12th century AD.  Their numbers drastically reduced, the bison survived in only a few forests in Eastern Europe.
As their habitat shrank, bison were hunted for their meat and frequently just for the sport.  Just as the American bison were brought to the edge of extinction by hunters seeking only their hides or tongues, European bison were slaughtered to make beer steins from their horns.
Eventually, the only preserve left was Bialowieza Forest in Poland, and after the 16th century, this area was "usually" a royal preserve with hunting limited only for the highest nobles.  The exact legal status changed from monarch to monarch until 1887 when Tsar Alexander II established it as his private preserve.  While the Tsars rarely exercised their royal prerogative—Nicholas II's last hunt was in 1912—they did occasionally find a use for the last remaining bison, quite a few were shipped off to various zoos across Europe.    

The First World War was tough on the bison (and Tsar Nicholas II didn't fare much better).  The preserve was invaded by the German army, who shot all of the bison, along with thousands of deer and wild boar, motivated equally by hunger and boredom.  By the time the Germans withdrew, there were only 54 bison left in Europe and none of them were in Poland.
This might be a good place to mention that these are not really what you might call "game animals."  The bison are not shy, nor are they fast or elusive.  Frankly, they would be about as hard to shoot as a city bus driving in slow, lumbering circles in an empty parking lot.  The Tsar and his wife used to shoot a few dozen in a single day with almost no effort—they sat in chairs and slaughtered the bison as they were herded past them by beaters.  A herd of one-ton animals with wide horns, stumbling through a forest, is going to be about as hard to locate as a big-haired blonde at a Texas wedding.

With 12 animals from various zoos, a breeding program was started at Bialowieza.  Slowly, the bison were reintroduced into the forest, and their numbers started to climb, until by the beginning of the 1930's, hunting was allowed, in order to stabilize the population at a manageable number.  Herman Goering, Hitler's second in command, hunted in the preserve, and quickly identified with the bison.
In some strange way, Goering thought of the bison as "Aryan".  (If this seems absurd, remember that in 1936 the Third Reich would sign a treaty with Japan that not only made the two countries allies, but identified the Japanese as ehrenarier, or "honorary Aryan.")  Just as Goering believed that racial inbreeding had diluted the true majesty of the Aryan man, he believed that domestication had diluted the nature of animals.  In the bison, Goering believed he was turning back the clock to true essence of the beast.

Goering quickly arranged to take four bison—three cows and a bull—back to Germany for the preserve he was building 40 miles north of Berlin.  The fact that his miniature herd was impossibly inbred (coming from a pool of only 12 animals from zoos), seems to have been lost on him.

At Carinhall, named for his deceased first wife, Goering created a perfect playhouse for an immature Nazi.  Huge banquet halls, an indoor pool, lakes, shooting boxes, hunting trophies, incredibly elaborate furnishings, and a blonde mistress.  Goering even built a huge model train layout with over 320 feet of track, tunnels, and bridges.  This train layout was so elaborate that on the eve of the war, it was insured for $265,000 (the equivalent of millions today).  Eventually, he planned a 960 foot wing addition to house the Herman Goering Museum featuring the art he had stolen from all of Europe.
When Goering was ready to show off his toys to the outside world, he invited a large group of ambassadors to tour the grounds with him.  As they stood around a pen containing the three cows, Goering made a long winded speech about the triumphal nature of all things Aryan before opening the gate that would allow the bull to rush into the pen and demonstrate the virility of the true Germanic animal. 
Goering, besides being Reichsmarschall of the Luftwaffe and second-in-command of the German Reich, was also the Reichsminister of Forestry and the Hunting Master of Germany.  As such, he should have known that like most wild herbivores, bison only mate in season.  So, unfortunately, at his demonstration of "German virility", the bull refused to enter the pen with the cows, and when forced to pass through the gate, took one look at the cows and scampered back to safety. 
Well, perhaps, it really was a perfect example of Nazi Virility.

The ambassadors quickly wrote up the account and sent it to their respective countries.  Sir Eric Phipps, the ambassador to Germany from Great Britain, was so derisive that his cynical dispatch is legendary; historians refer to it as the "Bison Dispatch."
Eventually, after Germany invaded Poland, the herd of bison at Bialowieza came under the control of Goering, who ordered the continuation of the preserve and the protection of the herd.  As Germany lost the war, he ordered his Luftwaffe to totally destroy Carinhall.  While almost all of the buildings—and the incredible model train layout—were destroyed, the preserve and most of the animals survived.
The preserve at Bialowieza changed hands several times.  In 1939, the Russians chased out the Polish gamekeepers and replaced them with Russian gamekeepers, who were replaced by German gamekeepers in 1941.  The Russians were back in 1944, and declared the area a park.  In 1991, representatives of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus met in the park and formally signed the Belavezha Accords that formally dissolved the Soviet Union.  Today, the preserve is slightly over a hundred square miles, which straddle the border dividing Poland and Belarus.

And the bison?  Today, there are roughly 5000 of them, with about half of those in the wild and the other half living in zoos and scattered breeding programs.  And if you go to Germany, for about $2,000, you can prove shooting one.  Goering would be proud of you.

1 comment:

  1. The Nazis were big naturists and environmentalists as ostensibly the other Marxist Europeans and the Marxist Chinese. One doesn't want to look too closely at Google Earth for evidence of their impact on their the environment, if you want to maintain that delusion. And do NOT take an aerial squint at places like Chernobyl and the Aral Sea or take a dipper out of the Caspian.