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Where is the evidence to prove that the bison is not an aurochs?

© Форпост Северо-Запад/ Горный музей

The law on regulation of hunting in the Russian Empire (1892) was still 90 years away, when the Emperor Alexander I took over the role of an official in issuing permits for shooting wild animals. It is true that such an order concerned only one area, Belovezhskaya Forest, and one species, the bison (or Bison bonasus in scientific jurisprudence). By the beginning of the 19th century, the vastest tract of forest in Europe remained the only place where these bison could live. They were cherished as a national treasure, and only museums and universities could count on the highest permission.

The procedure for obtaining and using such a paper is an example of the most developed bureaucracy. The applicant applied to the supervising body of the central executive power. A university museum, for example, would apply to the Ministry of National Education. From there, the petition went to the Forestry Department of the Ministry of State Property, which prepared a presentation to its minister. The latter filed a petition to the czar. If he gave a positive resolution, the paper began to move down the hierarchy: the Ministry of Internal Affairs, then the governor and, finally, the local police.

рога бизона
© Форпост Северо-Запад/ Горный музей

Such a tortuous path, through the refusal and renewal of the petition, from 1803 to 1819 followed the University of Vilna and its professor Ludvig Bojanus to his scientific discovery.

"Sooner or later the European bison will be wiped out completely and if the traces of this animal, which is rare in Europe and is found almost nowhere else, are not preserved for the benefit of the natural sciences, the foreign natural scientists will certainly not groundlessly blame the University of Vilna for the inexcusable carelessness in this case," the scientist wrote.

Having at last received the material for his research, Bojanus insisted that the skeleton of the animal be assembled with the utmost precision and began to describe the rare mammal species in detail. He succeeded in proving that the bison and farm animals of the bovine subfamily have different ancestors. The former descended from the steppe bison (Bison priscus), and the common cattle, from the auroch (Bos primigenius). Before him, science was in disarray over this issue. Many adhered to the hypothesis that the bison and the auroch were simply different names for the same animal.

A monograph describing the discovery was published after the zoologist's death, in 1827. This date is recorded in the scientific name of the species - Bison priscus Bojanus, 1827.

бизон в музее
© Форпост Северо-Запад/ Горный музей

A perfectly preserved complete skeleton of a bison from Belovezhskaya Forest is on display in the Mining Museum in St. Petersburg. A gift from Governor Dmitry Bantysh-Kamensky of Vilna from 1836. Perhaps it was the study of this specimen that led Ludwig Bojanus to its discovery.

In 1825, Nicholas I ascended the Russian throne and permits for bison hunting became easier to obtain. Researchers claim that under his reign there was not a single refusal to allow museums or universities to shoot the animal for scientific purposes. Under Alexander III the Belovezhskaya Forest was transferred from the ownership of the state treasury to the private property of the tsar's family and became the hunting residence of the Russian monarchs. Consequently the bison once again got the status of a game animal. It is known that in 1897 alone the hunting trophy of Nicholas II amounted to 37 bison.

© Форпост Северо-Запад/ Горный музей

The last wild specimen of Belovezhskaya Forest was shot in 1919. The history of the species was practically interrupted. Only 48 individuals remained in zoos on the entire planet. Fortunately, less than 50 years later it was possible to "resurrect" the wild population. Active work on the so-called introduction of the bison into the wild was carried out in the USSR after the end of the Great Patriotic War. Adaptation of a herd of 10-20 animals in the wild takes about 30 years after release in the wild, which is approximately the age limit of an animal. By the early 1980s the number of bison had increased to a safe value from the point of view of preservation of the species.

Today it is possible to find bison meat delicacies on the market. This meat is high in protein, low in fat and completely free of carbohydrates. But neither our ancestors, nor us, have managed to turn the symbol of the Belarusian forests into an object of cattle breeding. The auroch, or wild bull, has evolved into cattle. The bison, on the other hand, as in the old days, "walk on their own."