‘The Bison Is Poland’s Animal’ : Ice-Age Relics Roaming in Land of Kings, Czars
Deep in a primeval forest straddling the Polish-Soviet border roams the world’s largest herd of European bison, a cousin of the American buffalo, whose history dates back to the Ice Age.
The bison, which faced extinction 60 years ago, thrives today in the Bialowieza National Forest, a dense, thickly wooded preserve of centuries-old oaks and pines that once served as the personal hunting grounds of Polish kings and the Russian czar.
The bison and the forest have in many ways been linked with the history of eastern Poland, which since the 18th Century has been ruled at one time or another by Poland, Russia, Lithuania and Germany.
“It is easy to say that the history of the bison is connected with the history of Poland,” said Zdislaw Pucek, head of the Mammal Research Institute at Bialowieza. “They suffered enormously during each insurrection, uprising and war.”
Encouraged by the success of the United States in saving the buffalo from extinction, Polish scientists led the campaign to save the bison after World War I, when they had disappeared from the forest and numbered only 40 in the world.
“We, as Poland, had to do it because the animal had lived in Bialowieza from the very beginning,” said Waldemar Pilarski, a professor at the Agricultural Academy in Warsaw. “The bison is Poland’s animal.”
The bison was placed on the endangered species list and three specimens were reintroduced into Bialowieza in 1929. The herd has since grown to 440, of which 240 are on the Polish side of the border. European bison now number 2,500.
Bialowieza is the last primeval forest in Europe, virtually unaltered by man since the glaciers receded 10,000 years ago. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) placed Bialowieza on its list of biosphere reserves in 1977 and two years later declared it part of mankind’s heritage.
It covers 480 square miles and before World War II was entirely within Polish territory. When Poland’s eastern border was redrawn after the war, the Soviet Union acquired a little more than half the forest.
Resembles American Buffalo
The bison and the primeval nature preserve remained in Poland, although the bison herd has grown on the Soviet side of the border through migration and gifts of the animal from Poland.
The European bison resembles the American buffalo in size, shape and color. But, unlike the buffalo, which is a prairie dweller, the bison needs large wooded areas to survive. Bialowieza’s virgin woods are particularly well-suited for it.
A thousand years ago, bison roamed the European continent. Their numbers dwindled as forest areas declined with the advance of civilization, and by the 18th Century bison could be found only in Bialowieza, where perhaps 500 lived.
In addition to bison, the forest is rich in other game, such as deer, elk and fox, which long made it a favored hunting ground of royalty and modern-day rulers, including the late Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev in 1957.
Bison hunting in Bialowieza has been prohibited since the animal was placed on the endangered species list.
Killed in Royal Hunts
It was not always so, although King Zygmunt August of Poland restricted hunting of bison, the prize catch of the forest, to royal parties in the 18th Century. Legend has it that his wife, Queen Maria Theresa, killed eight bison in a single hunt in 1752.
In 1803, when eastern Poland was under Russian partition, the forest was declared the private hunting grounds of the Russian czar, who built a palace in Bialowieza.
When the Poles rose against the Russians in 1863, partisan Polish troops sought refuge in the forest and lived off bison meat, dangerously reducing the size of the herd.
Bison survived in Bialowieza until World War I, when the herd was decimated by the German army after the Russian retreat.
In the confusion after the war until 1920, Bialowieza passed under Lithuanian, Polish and Russian rule before finally being returned to Poland. Warring armies swept through the forest twice, and in 1919, the last bison was killed.
This year, the Polish government has proposed that selected hunting be allowed by foreigners, who would pay $4,000 per bison killed.
The idea is fiercely opposed by scientists involved with the bison, who call it blasphemous that hunting of the animal would even be considered after years of effort to preserve it.
Czeslaw Okolow, the senior research scientist at Bialowieza who has spent most of his life in the forest, said shooting the slow-moving bison, which will fearlessly stand 20 yards from humans, is about as easy as shooting a parked car.
“The line between hunting and killing is very fine,” he said.