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Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe

2012 – when the Tauros started growing wings

With the New Year just arrived, it is time to look back at 2012, a year in which the Tauros Programme certainly took a flight. Above all, a communications flight. We can just stare in wonder at the response from the international media on what we are doing. For example, extensive coverage in the 2012 Christmas issue of The New Yorker magazine (on the Tauros Programme and Rewilding Europe). A couple of million people will read about our plans to breed back a bovine species that will be pretty much like the Aurochs once was, in every aspect.

Sure, we knew already early back in 2009, when our initiative first became public, that our plans were being followed by a small group of interested ecologists. Even when our first calf was born, we couldn’t predict that we would be hot once. But apparently that was the case. The cooperation with Rewilding Europe will certainly lead to a further boost, thanks to Rewilding Europe’s media work and contacts network. Big national newspapers in Italy and Spain have covered our initiative, followed by newspapers in Brazil, Time magazine and National Geographic. Partly maybe because they got the – completely wrong – impression that we were doing some kind of ”Jurassic Park”.

Yes, we are working together with scientific institutions and bit by bit identifying the full genetic code of the Aurochs, but no, we are NOT planning to inject DNA into empty egg-cells of cows or something like that. Instead, we will use the full DNA of the aurochs as a baseline, a reference point. As something much more secure and reliable compared to cave paintings and copper engravings.

This is because all the original aurochs DNA is still around. The genetic information is still there: in the so called ”primitive cattle breeds”: breeds that still possess many characteristics of the Aurochs. And by using those more ancient cattle breeds you immediately earn a lot, for example natural wildlife behaviour, since most of the animals we use have lived in semi-wild and quite natural conditions over a long time. So we are convinced that a strategy of back-breeding, starting with some of the most suitable primitive breeds, is the best and quickest way to get to a completely self-sufficient wild bovine, that resembles the Aurochs as closely as ever possible.

It is not a quick fix, however, it will take years, at least a decade before we are there.

Now on to some of the highlights of 2012 and a gaze ahead. Our herd of crossings (mainly first generation) currently counts about a hundred and twenty animals, the eldest one being nearly three years old – Manolo Uno, named after one of the last Spanish cowboys”. He’s a beautiful and impressive animal, our “top model” for the moment.

The animals are kept on several locations in the Netherlands and a group of Maronesa cattle is still waiting in Portugal to be brought over to the Netherlands. With their almost Aurochs-like appearance (just somewhat smaller) and big horns they can make an important contribution to the programme. However, veterinarian hurdles have stood and are still standing in the way – we have been waiting for over four months for the right Bluetongue serum to arrive in Portugal. In the meantime, we bought a group of Sayaguesa cattle from Spain and they are already in the Netherlands. Together they will speed up the transformation of our biggest Tauros herd in the Netherlands considerably.

A field visit today already gives a fairly good impression of the progress, but it will improve a lot, since we are step by step moving out the considerable number of highlander cows that are in the pasture today. They are there to keep the nature reserve open, but they are not part of the breeding programme. From spring 2013, a visitor will mainly see Tauroses in different stages of development, and also a sizeable herd of beautiful Exmoor ponies. The Exmoors are seen as one of the most ancient of all horse breeds in Europe today and have no problems living wild and free. You can walk amongst them all, both free-ranging cattle and horses and this already gives a kind of wildlife experience.

In addition to our new imports, spring will bring another hundred and fifty first and second generation calves, partly from artificial insemination and embryo transplantation. So we are well on our way! However, a rough estimation of the number of animals needed for the Rewilding Programme in 2020 alone could easily land us in the thousands. So there’s a lot of work to be done. Together with the Rewilding Europe team we will work out a strategy to get ahead as fast and as precisely as possible.

There has been progress on the scientific level as well, although we might have been a bit over-optimistic at times. We were hoping our scientists would by now have unravelled the full genetic code of the Aurochs, so we would be able to test our first generation not only on looks and behaviour, but on genetics as well. Unfortunately the Aurochs nuclear DNA samples could not be analysed yet, so this will take a bit longer. Meanwhile, Wageningen University was successful in analysing the DNA of about 30 primitive breeds in 2011, and, since other international research groups have already unravelled the full genetic code of Mitochondrial DNA of the Aurochs, Wageningen University was able to draw up a genealogical tree of European primitive breeds via the maternal line, connected to the Aurochs.

This proved that some of the breeds we are using (such as the Spanish Pajuna and the Italian Podolica) are very close to the Aurochs. This is also the case for the Spanish fighting bull (Lidia breed), but because it no longer behaves naturally and has been selected over the centuries to be aggressive, we decided early on not to use this breed. A research group from Dublin University has made considerable progress on sequencing the nuclear DNA of an Aurochs bull in recent years. Wageningen University has received part of this material, to be able to make a comparison – now on the nuclear DNA-level – again with the 30 primitive breeds. We hope to get this information in the first half of 2013. That would enable us to construct a genealogical tree on the nuclear DNA as well (that’s where all the information on characteristics is stored).

And then there is also work in progress at the University of California, where a research group has received dental material from a quite recent Polish Aurochs skeleton. They are doing test runs now, to see whether or not the material can be used for further analysis. So we’re optimistic again that a lot of additional genetic information will be available during the first half of 2013.

Since we have now got a small herd of crossings, we will start our first selections as well. Up until now we’ve been doing this on the basis of looks and behaviour. Of course, we store genetic material of these individuals, too, to be able to use this as a selection method as well, once we’ve made enough progress.

Finally, our cooperation with Rewilding Europe also started in 2012. It is very inspiring for us, since Rewilding Europe has assembled a large team of enthusiastic, knowledgeable and visionary people, who have given rewilding principles very deep thought. In 2013 we will for sure all meet on several occasions, with the WILD10 World Wilderness Congress in Salamanca, Spain in October as THE peak event of the year. WILD10 has also graciously given us the right to use their logo after the congress – a beautiful and powerful Aurochs from one of the cave paintings, filled up with human handprints. Aurochs 2.0: it’s man’s work. During 2013, the Tauros will definitely attract a lot of attention. We have a lot of work to do, in order to live up to these expectations, but we have got a very good feeling about this. In 2013 we’ll definitely reach several new milestones with the Tauros Programme. More to be seen about it on this website – stay tuned!

Blog entries express the views and opinions of their authors, which might not always fully overlap with those of Rewilding Europe.

Blog entries express the views and opinions of their authors, which might not always fully overlap with those of Rewilding Europe.

Ronald Goderie

President of the Taurus Foundation

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