The females are in charge here, leading herds of about 25 bison each when their population level is normal, Chestin said, but a couple of herds often will graze as a group with as many as 100 animals. After mating, the males usually go off by themselves.
The arrival of the bison was witnessed by a herd of reporters and photographers, who were loaded into GAZ heavy-duty Army-type buses for the five-mile trip through the forest. The cabins, holding about 20 people, were perched high atop enormous tires, which rocked along the woods and for an alarmingly long time through the rushing water. Unlike the bison, the journalists were thrown around with abandon. A sign on the back of the truck described the cargo: PEOPLE.
With the bison free, the people got to work. Agreements were signed by Akhmed Bilalov, chairman of the board of North Caucasus Resorts, a government-backed company that is building a ski resort nearby; the WWF; and Rashid Temrezov, the head of Karachay-Cherkessia. They all promised to protect the bison, encourage environmental tourism and keep the region safe for nature.
The signing took place in a big white tent, complete with sound system, outside the bisons’ fence. North Caucasus Resorts had set up a celebratory buffet in an adjacent white tent, where a spread worthy of a five-star hotel miraculously appeared.
Chafing dishes warmed lamb and chicken kabobs. Delicate puffs of pastry held dabs of salad and shrimp. Apricots pressed into the shape of rosebuds decorated assorted nuts and dates. Sweet pastry baked in the shape of mushrooms and dipped in chocolate circled mounds of cream puffs. Corks popped from bottles of Crimean sparkling wine, local wines and cognac were poured. All of it had traveled the same improbable five miles over rocky land and water, without a tender flake out of place, here, farther even than the middle of nowhere.
The rain was pouring, contradicting the old song where the buffalo roam and the skies are not cloudy all day, but at least there was not a discouraging word.
The optimistic WWF plans to bring the Persian leopard back next, Chestin said, making the region just like it was 100 years ago.
Later, on another bumpy bus ride, he offered a toast to animal and man: The bison, he said, enhance the landscape of the forest, making it more open and hospitable to deer and others. And just as the bison improve life, so do some people. “To these people, I toast.”