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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bison Fall Prey to Rich Hunters in Belarus

KAMENYUKI, Belarus — Taxidermist Alexander Tukalo grunts with satisfaction as he examines the result of his labor — a fine specimen of a European bison’s head mounted on a wooden shield.

The bison was slain in Belarus’ Belovezhskaya Forest nature reserve and, as an endangered species, is the most expensive souvenir money can buy in this country.

Today only 260 bison survive. The World Wildlife Fund says there are only 3,600 of the animals, Europe’s largest herbivore, left alive, and half of them are in zoos.

"A beauty. She doesn’t look dead," says Tukalo, gazing at horns rising from a pine-colored pelt and chestnut eyes staring from above charcoal nostrils. "Trophies have become popular. I used to work mainly for museums."

The heads of bison are also a nice earner, selling for around $3,600 — a princely sum for locals but well within the means of the German and Austrian farmers who form the mainstay of foreigners who come here to hunt.

The forest, 360 kilometers southwest of Minsk, has been a nature reserve for hundreds of years. Only royalty was permitted to hunt here in tsarist times, affording the gigantic bison relative peace.

But post-Soviet poverty is fueling both a trade in bison as trophies and hunting expeditions into the forest.

Hunters say they kill only the bison that are ill, although local officials have mooted the idea of allowing all bison to be hunted and move some to other areas in order to throw the park open to tourism.

The forest, aside from its stunning natural beauty, has been touched by recent history and thus might prove a tourist draw.

It was here in 1991 that the then-leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus signed a document dissolving the Soviet Union. The bison are also threatened by a mysterious disease that locals have dubbed "bison AIDS." The genitals of the males start to decay, soon after which the bison dies. So far no one knows for sure what causes it.

For many, the hunting of bison, a contemporary of the mammoth, is tantamount to blasphemy, especially here in a forest seen as the holiest of holies in Belarus.

But the hunters maintain they are carrying out a necessary and useful task.

The bison that finished up in Tukalo’s workshop had been stuck in a poacher’s trap for days before she was found, one leg so injured it would have gone gangrenous.

"The hunters’ faces fell when they saw the catch after a long chase, barely hobbling along on three legs," said Alexei Bunevich, who organizes hunting tours for foreigners.

"Well, nothing could be done for it, they shot it."

He said his customers sometimes lose their nerve and refuse to shoot the bison.

"But they’re here for a limited amount of time, they’ve paid their money and don’t want to go home empty handed," he said.

"Of course, shooting a sick bison isn’t particularly romantic," he says with a laugh. "But once the hunters return home and hang their trophy on the wall, they maybe drink a shot or two and before you know it the story of the hunting of the bison makes itself up."

Nonetheless, the number of hunters roaming through the nature reserve’s rolling meadows and around its oak forests and lakes is on the rise.

They now offer extra services — a rug made from the pelt of a bison, or a bison steak in a local restaurant.

The professional hunters also see themselves as the guardians of the bison.

The animals had actually disappeared from the forest at the beginning of the 20th century.

They were reintroduced to Belovezhskaya Forest after World War II and might have died out there again were it not for man’s help — the hunters leave food for them during the winter months.

The hunts they organize for their part of the symbiotic relationship do look more like a theatrical reenactment than mindless slaughter.

Everything is done according to strict tsarist hunting customs — they shoot with traditional weapons, wear old fashioned hunters’ caps and place a wreath around the neck of the slain bison before singing a centuries-old hunting song.

Bunevich says his customers include Germans, Austrians, Slovaks, Czechs, Poles and rich Russians. The Germans, he says, sometimes complain about not being allowed to shoot the first bison they see, but always follow the rules.

The Russians, however, he loves. They may break the rules and discharge the odd shot at passing wildlife, but they never get annoyed if Bunevich can find no prey.

"Oh well, they say to me, let’s have a drink then," Bunevich says. "And then they put the vodka bottle on the hood of the Jeep."