Wild buffalo in Wood Buffalo National Park - Part 4: Wood Buffalo vs plains buffalo

The origin of the national park, as its name suggests, is due principally to the wood buffalo. There is a population of around 6,000 wood buffaloes, the largest herd of these animals that exists in the wild in the world.

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The Wood Buffalo national park covers an area of 44,900km2. In Wood Buffalo there are 47 species of mammals, most of which are typical of the boreal forest, and a much larger number of birds. This number is increased by seasonal migrations.
The Buffalo originated in Eurasia where it was hunted by Palaeolithic man. The decline of the Wood Buffalo was not due to hunting, as was the case of its relative from the plains. For some unknown reason it was at the point of extinction at the beginning of the century, and to try to prevent this, the Wood Buffalo national park was created in 1922. Then it sheltered a population of 1,500 buffaloes. The government had settled a group of plains buffaloes, the other subspecies, in the Elk Island national park, near Wood Buffalo. There, the buffalo population multiplied in a few years and outgrew the limits of population that the park could sustain, with the result that 6,673 of them were transferred to Wood Buffalo between 1925 and 1928 with disastrous consequences.

The plains buffaloes from this area infected the wood buffaloes with bovine brucellosis and tuberculosis. In addition, the two subspecies of buffaloes started cross-breeding until the pure-blooded wood buffalo seemed to have been lost. By the middle of the century, the loss of the wood buffalo subspecies was taken for granted and the worst thing was that those in charge of wildlife protection and conservation had been responsible for it.

Fortunately, a small herd of wood buffaloes which had not come into contact with the plains buffaloes was discovered in a remote corner of the park in 1958. Immediately measures were taken to avoid cross-breeding and animals were sent to different reserves so as to minimise risks. This small group had saved the wood buffalo from extinction.

 Since 1970, the wood buffalo population in Wood Buffalo park seems to have gone down gradually, while in other nearby areas, like the Mackenzie buffalo reserve or the Elk Island national park, it has increased considerably. Even so, the largest group is still here in Wood Buffalo.
Within the park, wolves are the buffaloes’ only predators and it is thanks to them that there is a healthy buffalo population. However, the movement of large herds affects an infinite number of lesser species which share the plains with them.

Wood Buffalo national park is in a remote area of Alberta and the North-West Territories where access is difficult. Few visitors manage to penetrate its gigantic frontiers to marvel at the wild natural life inside. And the wood buffalo a relic of times gone by, is still completely unknown to most of them.

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