Death and rebirth of the wisent.

Death and Rebirth of the wisent.

Sometime in the spring for 1919 in the Bialowieza forest in Poland, a poacher killed a wisent, also know as the European Bison or the bison, a cousin of the American Bison.  By no means was this a strange occurrence throughout history, but this kill was more meaningful than all the others that had preceded it: that was the last

wild wisent living in Poland.  There were a handful of a different species of wild wisent living in a different region, but by 1927 there were no wild wisents living anywhere in Europe.  But they were not completely extinct yet. There were less than fifty of these magnificent creatures living in captivity throughout the world, many too old or frail to breed.  That could have been the end of their story, another species made extinct to feed the hunger of humanity, but today they survive, thrive even, numbering more than 6000 worldwide, the majority of which live in the wild.  This is the story of the wisent, their death and rebirth, and the dangers that they still face to this day.

Image by Frank Vassen

Before human came to dominate Europe, the wisent roamed through most of Europe, west through most of France, north up even into some of Sweden, south stopped by the Alps and Carpathian Mountains, and east well into the Siberian region of mountains.  But humans found them useful for their meat, their fur and horns.  They also competed for the same food sources that the livestock of humans ate, and they were steadily driven back as humans encroached, retreating still deeper into the wild forests still untouched by man.  Decade by decade they became extinct in regions one by one, until by the beginning of the twentieth century, they only survived in Poland and the regions around the Caucasus mountains.

It was for selfish reasons that the Kings of Poland decided to protect the wisent.  The Bialowieza forest was pristine, still untouched by human hands.  They loved the hunt, and there was nothing bigger to hunt in Europe than the wisent.  The made the forest royal hunting grounds, declaring a death penalty for anyone killing a wisent, preserving the wisents so that they could be hunted for sport.  When Russia took over the lands, there was some loss, but quickly the protective laws were continued, now for the sake of the Tsar and Russian nobility.  It was not for the best of reasons, but nonetheless these actions were largely responsible for the wisent surviving into the twentieth century.

Image by Kommerzielle Bilder WikiImages on Pixabay

During World War One, the lands surrounding Bialowieza Forest changed hands once again.  It wound up near the frontlines of the Eastern Front.  Rules were put in place for the soldiers banning hunting in the woods eventually, but that did little to stop it from happening. In the cold, misery and boredom of trench warfare, they hunted to supplement their rations, or just to for sport.  There were approximately six hundred wisents living at the outbreak of the war.  By the time that the Austro-German soldiers withdrew, and Polish forces took control, the last wisent there had already died.  World War One was the source of so much misery and suffering, and the wisent as a species suffered just as much as if they had been in the trenches.

In 1923, an international group led by Polish scientists formed with the goal of restoring the wisent into the wilds.  Their organization was called by the Society for the Protection of the European Bison.  They scoured the world looking for wisent animals originating from the Bialowieza forest.  They documented every remaining wisent, buying some and penned them near the forest, beginning a breeding program.  It was a slow process to grow their numbers from next to nothing.  It was not until 1952 that the first two wisents were released into the forest.  By 1964 there were more than one hundred in the forest.   Today, there are more than 6000 wisents living, most of them in the wilds.  Many are fully wild, but some receive supplemental food during the miserable cold winters in some regions of their habitat.  They have been reintroduced into protected forests of many countries.  They have gone from being extinct in the wild to being vulnerable according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature

Image by Cloudtail the Snow Leopard

As it has seemingly always been through history, the main threats to wisent remaining come from humans.  The Polish Government has their interest more in profitability rather than conservation, trying to expand logging rights in sections of the Bialowieza forest.  They claim that it is to combat a beetle infestation in the trees and that the natural habitat is more of open lands near forests rather than just in the forests themselves.  But the truth is that they just want to make money by cutting down more trees in one of the oldest untouched forests left in Europe.  Wisents would still be considered pests by farmers, potentially damaging crops and private property if humans private properties come close to where wild wisent live.

The wisent is a piece of a story wh8ich hows the best and worst of humanity.  It is the story of how humans, through carelessness and recklessness, can destroy things in the hunger to have more, and at the same time so capable of selflessness and doing the right thing.  When they began trying to reintroduce the wisent to the wild, there was no real blueprint on how to do it.  They improvised and figured things out as best they could.  In the process, they did create the guidelines that have been used many times since then to save other species from the brink of extinction.  It would be better if species were not continually pushed to the brink of extinction, but it is good to know that there is a plan for what can be done to preserve species when all other options have been exhausted. 

The wisent has endured much at the hands of humans.  Millions have died through the centuries to appease the hunger of humanity.  They survived through royal intervention for selfish reasons, only to be another casualty of World War One.  They were successfully reintroduced and thrived once again free from negative human intervention.  There are still threats to their existence, but there are experts looking out for them, doing their best to keep them safe from any and all potential threats.  The world is a truly better place with these magnificent creatures alive and thriving wild in forests throughout Europe.

Video Copyright of Jos Vroegrijk 2017

2 thoughts on “Death and rebirth of the wisent.

    1. I have only ever seen the American Bison in person. I went to Yellowstone with my family a few years ago. At one point, I could have literally reached out the window and petted one as it passed up by.
      And fun fact, wisents actually grow larger than American Bison. So if one went to Texas and someone said everything is always bigger in Texas, it would laugh at them!


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