Water buffalo release in the Danube Delta provides boost for landscape

Rewilding Europe, who are spearheading both the Danube Delta and Western Iberia projects of the Endangered Landscapes Programme (ELP), have successfully released a herd of seven water buffalo on Ermakov Island in the Ukrainian part of the Danube Delta. The hefty herbivores will create and maintain a mosaic landscape on the island, supporting the area’s dynamic, wild nature, as well as driving development of local, nature-based tourism.

A herd of seven water buffalo have been released in the Danube Delta, and will help shape this diverse wetland landscape. Photo credit: Andrey Nekrasov

 “These animals are one of nature’s great engineers,” explains Mykhailo Nesterenko, team Leader of Rewilding Europe’s partner organisation, Rewilding Ukraine. “As large bovines they open up the scrub and reedbeds, creating pools and puddles which are home to many insects, amphibians and fish. They are also active seed distributors.”

Europe was once home to an indigenous species of water buffalo (Bubalus murrensis), which became extinct during the Pleistocene period. All water buffalo now living in Europe are related to the Asiatic water buffalo (Bubalus arnee), which was most likely introduced into Europe from Asia. Before their relatively recent reintroduction into the Danube Delta, such buffalo were present in the region until around 100 years ago.

Natural grazing by the water buffalo will help to create a dynamic landscape, benefitting an array of wildlife. Photo credit: Magnus Lundgren.

Water buffalo are well suited to the environment in the Danube Delta, with other recently reintroduced animals thriving here. They adapt better to wet conditions and poor-quality vegetation than cattle, their delta diet including young reeds. Water buffalo have the same positive effect on flora and fauna diversity that other grazers have. By feeding, trampling and wallowing, they create a more diverse landscape by preventing any single plant species from becoming over-dominant. Their organic waste also provides habitat and food for many insects, while the small pools of water they create are important for amphibians such as red-bellied toads and tree frogs.

The newly released buffalo herd, consisting of five males and two females (including one pregnant female), was transported to Ermakov Island by barge. The herd had previously been kept on a small farm near the village of Vilkovo, after travelling around 1000 km by road – a day’s journey – from the Tisza Basin region in Ukrainian Transcarpathia. Here they had been carefully collected and cared for by German ecologist Michael Jacobi.

All the buffalo were pronounced fit and healthy upon arrival at their final destination.  “The animals travelled well, although they didn’t like the hot weather or the barge trip,” says Oleg Dyakov, Rewilding Officer at Rewilding Ukraine. “After landing they immediately headed to the nearest pool to cool off! Buffaloes are very intelligent and social animals and they seemed to relish bathing in their new home.”

After being transported for approximately 1000 km, the water buffalo earn a well-deserved cool down in the water. Photo credit (all): Andrey Nekrasov.

In addition to regulating vegetation and landscapes, Ermakov Island’s new buffaloes will help attract a growing number of tourists. The island has already become one of the richest areas of wild nature in the reserve, after local authorities (including the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve) and WWF reflooded the island about 10 years ago by opening up some of the surrounding dykes. The ELP-funded project underway today aims to further develop tourism infrastructure and marketing of the island, with the goal of making Ermakov an attractive and well-known nature tourism destination.

The revival of wild nature on Ermakov Island is hoped to bring more nature-based tourism to the area. Photo credit: Magnus Lundgren

In the coming weeks natural grazing on Ermakov will be given a further boost with the arrival of another 10 water buffaloes from the same farm in Transcarpathia, as well as 15 wild Konik horses. The horses were shipped from Latvia in March, and are currently under quarantine in Orlovka, an area just opposite Ermakov across the Danube river. Interacting with natural flooding and other natural processes, these completely free-living large herbivore herds will greatly diversify the dynamics and habitats on the island.

Funded by a $2.5 million grant from the Endangered Landscapes Programme, this is the delta’s largest transboundary restoration project to date. It involves the recovery of natural landscapes, their ecological processes (such as flooding and natural grazing) and associated flora and fauna across more than 40,000 ha (400 km2) of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve in Romania, Moldova and Ukraine.

To find out more about the ELP’s Danube Delta project, visit here.