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Wisent (Bison bonasus)
Wisent is the largest European terrestrial mammal, with
the body weight reaching almost 1 tonne in males. The
species lives in herds counting sometimes even over fifty
individuals. Leaders of such herds are old, experienced
females. Wisents feed upon ground flora of the forest,
grasses and sedges growing at forest meadows, as well as
tree leaves, twigs and bark. They have a very good sense of
smell and hearing, but slightly weaker sight, may run with
a speed of up to a few dozen kilometres per hour, and jump
over obstacles up to 2 metres high. In a herd, wisents are
not afraid of any predators, however weaker individuals or
calves left behind the herd are likely to fall prey to wolves
The species was fairly common in forests of medieval Europe, but as very attractive game (in Poland reserved only for sovereigns), it became extirpated in the west of the continent quite early, and survived only at Białowieża Primeval Forest until the end of World War II, and in Caucasus until 1927. Between the two world wars, the restitution of the species was undertaken at Białowieża, on the basis of few individuals that survived in breeding centres and zoos. As a result, all the living wisents originate from only 12 ancestors, which makes them the most inbred species among all the European mammals presently living in the wild.
First wisents were again released to the wild in 1952 in Białowieża. Polish population of this species is the largest in the world – about 1240 individuals out of over 4600 presently living wisents. In our country, except Białowieża, wisents live in the wild in the Knyszyn and the Borecka Forests, at Western Pomerania and in the Bieszczady Mountains. Outside Poland, free ranging wisent herds may be seen in Belarus, Lithuania, Romania, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine. Rescuing this species from what seemed an almost inevitable extinction is a great achievement of Polish scientists and foresters, and remains a Polish symbol of success in the field of nature conservation.
Kajetan Perzanowski, D.Sc.
Carpathian Wildlife Research Station
Museum and Institute of Zoology PAS