Poland’s pride - the European bison
Where can you go to see the king of Polish fauna, the European bison? You can take a trip to one of the nature reserves, visit places in Europe where it has been reintroduced, or simply go online.
It is not a coincidence that the European bison, a close cousin of the American bison, is dubbed the king of the wilderness. An adult bull weighs up to 900 kilograms and its height at withers can reach 180 cm. Charging, it can reach speeds of up to 40 km/h, and both the male and female boast impressive horns, which they never shed. A few thousand years ago, these majestic creatures roamed across Europe. However, hundreds of years of hunting drove the species the brink of extinction. The last wild European bison became extinct at the beginning of the 20th century.
Intensive breeding programmes conducted by zoological gardens helped to save Europe’s largest mammal. The first European bison were released into the wild in Bialowieza Forest back in 1929. As a result, the forest is now home to the world’s largest herd of these animals, consisting of around 500 wisents. Although still very rare, European bison are considered by scientists to be safe as a species.
The number of bison in the world is estimated at 5,000, half of which live in Central Europe. In Poland, three quarters of the local population of these great mammals live in the wild. You can come across them not only in Bialowieza Forest, but also in the Bieszczady Mountains, in Masuria and in West Pomerania.
The best time to watch bison in their natural habitat is the winter – this is when they gather in larger herds and leave visible tracks in the snow. One should bear in mind that wild, agitated or frightened animals can cause serious injury. That is why it is best to watch them from a safe distance, equipped with binoculars.
In captivity, the European bison can also be seen in zoological gardens or show reserves located close to the natural habitat of wild herds. The most well-known one is located in the Białowieża Forest – in the last preserved part of the primeval forest that once covered Europe. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the reserve between Hajnówka and Białowieża is home to many other animal species, including tarpan horses, wolves, wild boars, deer and elk. An exceptional attraction is the żubroń, a result of Polish cross-breeding of the bison and domestic cattle.
Saved by Polish naturalists, the animal is gradually being reintroduced in other countries. In the past, Poland exported bison to France, Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Only in 2012, seven animals were brought from the Białowieża Forest to the Almindingen Forest on the Danish Island of Bornholm. The initiative was put forward by the Danish Ministry of the Environment, with the hope of increasing biodiversity and attracting tourists. At present, the herd inhabits a fenced area. If it does not pose any threat to people, it will be released to roam free in a few years time. With abundant forests and a similar climate to Poland, the bison should feel right at home.
Admiring the Polish bison
Since 2012, thanks to efforts taken by the Polish State Forests, anyone can admire the Polish bison from any place in the world. On a forest glade close to the northern border of the Białowieża Forest, foresters installed a webcam. It broadcasts a live stream from the spot where the feed is put out for the animals in the winter; the bison tend to congregate and spend a lot of time in the area. If, at a given moment, the largest mammals are out of sight, the webcam focuses on other animals dwelling in the forest – doe, deer, raccoon dogs and birds. This sylvan reality show has its own Facebook page and is followed by thousands of fans.