Sunday, February 26, 2012

The king of the forest

Since it's a bit cold and messy outside, allow me to take you on a little journey of natural discovery.

On the farthest Eastern edge of our country, straddled over the border we share with Belarus lies a magical wilderness: the primeval forest of Białowieża.

With only small villages to house guests and scarce transportation, the region does not, at first glance, seem like an inviting tourist location. No large hotels, no resorts, no shopping, no night life.

But one does not come to Białowieża for the night life. Not the human sort, anyway, which leaves you hungover and dry-mouthed, sleeping through the better part of the morning. In Białowieża, it behooves the tourist to rise before the sun, don her wellingtons, and rush through the dewy dawn with eyes wide open and camera in hand, to catch the boar, the deer, and the wisent at their breakfast grazing.

Dawn in Teremiski
Deer coming to have a drink of water from the pond, at 4:30 am. A sight worth losing sleep over.

Leave man-made entertainment in the cities. Here, nature is your host.

Białowieża Primeval Forest
A path designed to protect the undergrowth from humans in the strict protection zone of the National Park.
You cannot enter this area without a guide.

The border leaves most of the woodland on the Belarussian side, but what is left in Poland is still a vast and ecologically rich area. Over centuries, it was protected as a king's hunting grounds, and thus survived almost intact until the 1900s. Both World Wars caused significant damage, but it was in 1919 that the forest suffered what was arguably its greatest loss: the death of the last wild wisent.

What's a wisent, you ask?

Wisent or Żubr

Otherwise known as the Bison bonasus, it is a cousin of the American bison (Bison bison), and the largest European mammal. A male can weigh up to 920 kilos (that's over two thousand lbs!), and lives about 25 years. Isn't it frightening that both species of this impressive genus, though divided by a great ocean, came so close to extinction by fault of man's drive to war and conquest?

I say they came close- because luckily, the wisent is back.

Wisent or Żubr
Back in style, baby.
In 1923, in that short period between World Wars, a society was formed in Poland with the express intention of saving the species and returning the wisent back to the European wilderness- starting with the Białowieża forest. Their hope lay in the many wisent from Białowieża which had been sent to zoological gardens worldwide during the 19th century. As it turned out, there were only 54 individuals who had survived in captivity. And not all of them were fit to reproduce...

But in the end, the attempt was successful. The first wisent, a male born in Germany and named Borusse was placed in the forest preserve a mere six years later. He was joined by two females, the pureblood Biserta and the half wisent half bison Faworytka, both raised in Stockholm. By the time World War Two broke out, sixteen wisent were romping in the forest- luckily, all of them survived the ordeal.

Wild wisent in Teremiski
A little herd chilling out.

Today, there are over 500 bison living wild in the Polish part of the Białowieża forest. This is still a small number, and with the genetic material all going back to the same small group of wisent recovered from the zoos, it is important to control the further expanse of the population. Each new wisent is recorded in the European Bison Pedigree Book, published yearly- this helps guarantee the purity of the species and grants important information to breeders. Today, the Book counts over 4000 bison worldwide, over half of that number living in the wild. A 1000 of them live in Poland, of which half reside in the Białowieża forest.

So, you see, if you go visit Białowieża, you won't have too much trouble spotting a wisent, whether in the reserve, or out grazing a field. Just remember these few tips: don't get too close, approach them quietly and with great caution, and if the wisent looks right at you- stop, and don't come any closer. He's watching you, now. He'll keep on watching you until you go away. And if you don't go away- he will.

Most of all, remember that he's the king of the forest, and you are merely his guest.

By the way, the Polish word for wisent is 'żubr'. Have you ever heard of a vodka called Żubrówka? It's a yellowish colour, and comes in a tall bottle with a blade of bisongrass inside. Yep. It's named after the wisent, and it's one of the best vodkas in Poland.

Meta Info:

Wikipedia entry on Białowieża Forest:

Official website of the Białowieża National Park:

A photo of dr Erna Mohr and Borusse, the first wisent to return to the forest:

The European Bison Pedigree Book in History and Today ( a pdf with lots of cool old photos) 

Wikipedia entry for Żubrówka Vodka: