If you would ask people where they can see bison in the wild, they would immediately say North America. It’s mostly guaranteed that you see them, when going to Yellowstone National park. But you actually don’t have to venture so far (if you live in Europe)! Not many people know that there are wild bison in some parts of the forest in Poland. The numbers of wild European bison (Bison bonasus) are significantly lower than numbers for their cousin the American bison (Bison bison) which makes it possibly even more exciting, when you manage to spot them in their natural habitat, the forest.
That it is still possible to see them in the Bialowieza forest should not be taken for granted. In April 1919 the European Bison went extinct in the wild, after a poacher killed the last of its kind in the Bialowieza forest. 1923 an appeal was made to save the European bison. With major efforts a reasonable population level could be restored, based on a few specimens which were kept in zoos worldwide. The first bison was reintroduced into the wild here in 1952. Today about 500 animals live in the Bialowieza forest.
The bison is the largest land mammal in Europe. But don’t think they are easy to spot! Ok, if they are lying in the middle of the path you would need to be rather visually impaired to not see them, but in the forest it’s a totally different scenario.
When we arrived in Stare Masiewo we thought we would just go into the forest and see one pretty quickly. Yes, it can happen that they take a nap on the path or just cross the road (so we’ve been told). The days passed by and no bison was in sight. All we had seen was bison poo (proof that they are around). Everybody told us it’s so much easier to see them in winter, when they group into larger herds and gather at the feeding stations. But we are here in summer and they don’t visit the feeding stations, since they find enough food in the forest. So that was not an option to pursue. From one of the other volunteers we heard that there is a possibility to see them on a meadow close to our base (cycling, not walking distance) early in the morning.
On our 5th day of our volunteer project did we finally get our bikes. So there was nothing stopping us the next morning.
Our alarm rang at 4am and it was not raining (YES!!!!!) It’s pretty chilly at that time of day, so we dressed as appropriately as possible. Unfortunately gloves were not part of our luggage, but who cares, we might be able to see our first bison……
It was foggy, so I got utterly excited that I would get a bison in the mist photo (in my dreams).
It was 4 of us, cycling quickly, to make sure we don’t miss anything. All equipped with cameras, binoculars and an extra portion of excitement.
And there they were, our first bison. Finally. These are big big animals and you can hardly hear them when they move over the meadow. They sometimes huff and puff a bit, but that’s about it.
There was a large mixed herd of about 10 individuals. As you might imagine, I didn’t get my National Geographic’s shot of the bison in the fog. Guess I should improve my skills of taking pictures in low light and fog 😉 But even if I will not rise to fame with the pictures I took, WE HAVE SEEN OUR FIRST EUROPEAN BISON in the wild.
We have been out there several times now, but as we are getting closer and closer to autumn, the fog is getting worse.
Since than we also have seen some Bison while working in the forest. Our work sometimes takes us to some remote places. Bison don’t really want to be in the areas where tourists constantly cycle or walk through, so remote places are great and increase our chances of an encounter. A few days ago Felix and I went to one of the places where we were lucky enough to see two big males grazing on the meadow a couple of days earlier. To make as little noise as possible we left our bikes somewhere on the path and walked (tip-toed in our wellies) to the place in the forest where you can overlook the meadow. When we arrived, there was no sign of a bison. All off a sudden we heard some branches breaking. Just the kind of noise we make when we try to walk extra carefully 😉
This noise didn’t come from across the little stream which separates the meadow from the forest area we were in. No, it was much much closer. Did it come from behind us? Will we be run over by an angry bull? It’s mating season, but not every bull will get lucky and might have a little frustration to get rid off. I stopped moving and breathing (the later is really not helping that much). Finally we spotted him. A big male, possibly 50 meters away. He really didn’t care about us, because he had a bit of an itch and was scratching himself on a tree. When the itch was gone he just wandered off and disappeared. It is amazing, that an animal, which weighs a ton can just walk off into the forest and vanishes. If he would not have made some noise to start with, we would possibly never have spotted him.
Each day we wander around in the forest we wonder if there is a bison watching us and we just don’t see it…