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Reviving Europe’s biodiversity with exotic animals

Scientists are bringing back long-lost species, such as water buffalo, to encourage the spread of native plants that fare poorly in Europe’s human-dominated landscape.

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Another increasingly rare habitat is the region’s inland salt meadows, located on the leftovers of an ancient ocean. These habitats are home to a unique mix of animal and plant species, like milk seaweed, that normally only occur far away along the North Sea and Baltic coasts. But in recent decades drainage and industrial agriculture have shrunk these habitats dramatically.

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Closer to the city is the 3,400-hectare (8,400-acre) Döberitz heath reserve that for 300 years was used as a military training area — first by the Prussian army, then the Nazis, and until 1989 by Soviet forces. The heavy shelling and use of tanks created a landscape that is exceptionally open and nutrient-poor. A wide range of species that like sandy, warm habitats have moved in, including nightjars and hoopoes, two bird species that have become rare in recent decades. But given the nitrogen-enriched rain and dense forests in the region, the heathland would be overrun by trees without intensive human management.

In 2011, the Sielmann foundation began setting free European bison and introducing Przhevalsky horses, which largely went extinct in their native Mongolia in the 1960s but have since been bred by zoos, including one in Munich, Germany. The heath offers the bison and Przhevalsky horses a semi-natural habitat that they like, and they keep the landscape open for rare specialists, such as St. Bernard’s lily and marsh gentian.

“The horses’ and bisons’ positive effect on the heathland is already measurable after a very short time,” says Peter Nitschke, head of the Döberitz heath project. The foundation is financing the project in part with entrance fees for a wildlife compound that has become popular for Berlin families.
 In Töpchin, local residents have warmed to their exotic neighbors. “At first, we were very skeptical,” says Kerstin Simon, who runs a farm with her husband Detlef. “We thought conservationists wanted to set more land aside for nonuse.”

Soon, however, the Simon family discovered that the buffalo project was a great opportunity for them. They have allowed the animals to graze on their land, too, and they can slaughter an animal from time to time. Later this year, the Simons will start marketing meat and sausage from water buffaloes. “We reckon Berliner city dwellers will like it as a taste of the wild,” says Kerstin Simon.

• Christian Schwägerl, is a freelance journalist who writes for GEO magazine and the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper. Until last year he was Der Spiegel’s environment correspondent. He is the author, with Andreas Rinke, of the recently published "11 Looming Wars," which discusses potential future conflicts over technology, food, territory, and resources. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, Schwägerl wrote about a unique nature reserve  being created along the spine of Germany’s former Iron Curtain and about the rise of urban beekeeping in Berlin.

This article originally appeared at Yale Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

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