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Wisent (Bison bonasus)

The magnificent American Bison (Bison bison) was very nearly exterminated by hunters, soldiers, and politicians, but the bison did not come nearly as close to extinction as its closest relative, the wisent (Bison bonasus).  Wisents are the largest native land animal in Europe today; an average wisent measures 1.8 to 2.2 m (6 to 7 ft) tall, and weighs up to 1000 kg (more than a ton). Although similar to American bison, the wisent is slightly smaller with larger horns and a hairier tail.  Whereas bison graze grass, wisents browse the forest–and the two animals therefore have different postures and necks. Wisents once roamed Eurasia from England to far eastwards of the Volga River where they were hunted by Caspian Tigers and Asiatic Lions.  The wisent herds also ranged north as far as northern Sweden and south to Italy.

Cave painting of a Wisent (from Altamira, Spain, from the Palaeolithic Age ca. 21,000 BC to 13,000 BC)

In prehistoric times, wisents were a mainstay of European megafauna and beautiful cave paintings (among the first known artistic achievements of humankind) often portray the mighty creatures, but, as humanity burgeoned in Europe, the wisent declined.  Starting in Gaul in the 8th century, whole populations of the shaggy giants gradually disappeared.  The creature vanished from northern Sweden in the 11th century, and then from England in the 12th. Tiny herds survived in the Ardennes forest and the Vosges Mountains until Frenchmen finished off these remnants in the 15th century.

A Wisent Hunt Depicted on a Hungarian Stamp

The wisents’ best friends turned out to be the kings of Poland, devoted big game hunters who proclaimed a death sentence on anyone poaching the mighty ruminants within the kingdom. Sadly though, the Polish Crown suffered…setbacks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Although the Russian tsars (who seized the Eastern forests of Poland) tried to keep the last herds of wisent alive, by the twentieth century, the animals survived only in zoos, the remote Caucasus, and in the primeval depths of Poland’s Białowieża Forest.  The ancient trees of Białowieża (and the animals living under them) remained largely untouched until World War I, when the region was captured by Germans, who built a railroad and timber mills there.  Within four years the remaining herd of 600 wisents was slaughtered.  When the Germans left only 9 of the beasts remained and the last of this tiny herd was killed in 1919 (probably by Soviet poachers).  The last wild wisent was slaughtered less than a decade later in the Western Caucasus, where a few hardy individuals had somehow managed to survive.

In the late twenties only about 50 wisents remained alive, all of which lived in various zoos. Fortunately an early pioneer of wildlife conservation stepped in to save the dying species.  Heinz Heck, the director of the Munich Zoo, established the first studbook for non-domestic animals and organized a groundbreaking breeding program to bring the wisent back from the brink (Heck was a determined and far-sighted man who also tried to personally resurrect several species of extinct megafauna—but we’ll deal with that quixotic quest another time).  Thanks to Heck’s ongoing efforts, captured populations of wisents started to grow and the animals were reintroduced into Białowieża in 1951.  The reintroduced wisents burgeoned and the forest is now home to more than 800 European bison. Wisents have also been reintroduced to protected parks in Russia (including the western Caucasus) and herds can now be found in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Spain.  Germany and the Netherlands hope to reintroduce the animal in the near future—perhaps someday the wisent will find its way back to Scandinavia, France, and even Great Britain.

Wisent herd in Caucasian mountains (Photo by Sergej Trepet)

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