The scheme known as the "Dutch Serengeti", set up by the Dutch government has been savaged by an official report after thousands of animals starved.The Ostvaardersplassen nature reserve, established in 1968 on a polder and classified as a Ramsar site since 1989, has been plagued by serious problems since the reintroduction of large herbivores, which have devoured the vegetation, leading to a scarcity of food.
More than half the large herbivores of the reserve– red deer, Konik horses and Heck cattle– have died from starvation.The population grew from 5,230 to 1850 meaning that 90% of the animals were shot dead before they succumbed to famine, as indicated by a damning official report.The Dutch government's policy sparked a strong protest among citizens, some of whom even organized groups to feed the animals bytossing straw at them. Olympic champion Anky van Grunsven, as well as the famous magician, Hans Klok, have also stepped up to denounce this "animal abuse", while rangers and ecologists on the reserve have received many death threats.
For Patrick van Veen, a biologist at the origin of the petition against the reserve, Ostvaardersplassen is a bitter failure.
You’d expect 20 or 30% to die of natural causes including starvation each year but the population grows in summertime and there is no control mechanism – normally you’d have predators such as wolves but it’s too small an area to have predators.
Demonstrations and protests are organized regularly. In the eyes of the population, this project is "an elite project", a "secret experiment". The public does not have access to the reserve because Heck cattle are considered dangerous.
Source: Joris van Gennip / Hollandse Hoogte/Eyevine
For a large majority of the Dutch, the reserve is like a desert, where dead carcasses, dead trees and thinner-than-livestock animals are just neglected.
Source: Pierre Crom/Getty Images
According to Han Olff, professor of ecology at the University of Groningen, the biodiversity at Oostvaardersplassen is still burgeoning:
Some people say the ecosystem is dying. Some people, like me, say the ecosystem is just coming alive.
His faith in the project was not altered by the report of the Dutch authorities. For him, it's just about letting nature speak.
A small group of people have made a tremendous noise, especially horse owners. They withhold a free life from their horses and justify that by feeding them too much food. Here the horses can choose its own mates, form social groups and sometimes die because in the herd they are the weakest link.
Ecologists hope that if more of the reserve is opened up to the public, they can come to see for themselves the viability of the project.
People say it’s a desert, it’s been overgrazed but they don’t see the landscape variability, so we need to much better allow access to the grazing and marsh areas to tell the story of this young, developing ecosystem.
Oostvaardersplassen is a unique zone in Europe, and Han Olff simply explains that the species that die there and disappear are species that have not been able to adapt, and that are replaced by other, more resistant species. "It’s just changing, it’s not better or worse, it’s just something different", Olff explains.