Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Bison tracking in Poland

The Wisent, or European Bison. Very little is known about this enigmatic mega herbivore. Many Sri Lankans wouldn't even know there was bison in Europe. But this is the largest land animal in Europe and has been roaming the dark forests of the continent for millennia. This is proven with the many cave paintings by our ancient ancestors depicting hunting bison.

With a bull standing 5-6 feet at the shoulder with a weight of 800-1000 kg these are truly majestic giants. Sadly the amazing species almost faced extinction in the wild. In 1919 the last wild Wisent was shot, and only a scattered population remained in zoos. Genetic studies proved that only 6 of the captive Wisent were suitable for breeding. These survivors became the ancestors of the now surviving wild Wisent. After two bulls were successfully released in the Bialowieza Forest in 1952 and followed by two cows the following year, in 1957 the first European bison was born in the wild.

Today there are over 3,000 wild European Bison scattered across the continent. Seeing such a magnificent animal in the wild was always my dream. My goal is to witness and photograph the great mega fauna of this planet, and hence the Wisent or European Bison was the top of my list.

Bialowieza is one of the last European primeval forests and a massive expanse of woods spreading between Poland and Belarus. This is an immense forest expanding to over 141,885 hectares, and one of the last refuges for mega fauna such as Bison, Moose, Red Deer and predators such as Wolf and Eurasian Lynx.

There are over 600 Bison living in this forest eco system, but as they are mainly forest animals, it is not very easy to find them. I was heading to Poland on a work assignment, and as usual I read up about the wildlife to be seen in this country, with little expectation of finding any mega fauna. But to my surprise I read up about Bialowieza and immediately made my plans to visit this forest after my work is done.

I wrote to many experts and photographers in the area, and all confirmed that April may not be the best time to see them, and that its not easy to find these giants out in the open. But given that I am already in the country I decided to make plans and give it a shot.

Hence after a stressful week of travelling to many cities such as Poznan, Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk, I finally was ready to head to the far East to seek my quarry the giant European Bison.

I was joined by my Polish friends Adam and Kasia, who met up with me at 10.00 am on Saturday to take me all the way to the forest. En-route we passed many charming villages and countrysides. Poland has a whole has alot of forest cover, and hence we passed many forest patches along the way. Our discussion were about the bison, and even Kasia confirmed that despite the fact that she has visited the area many times she has never seen a wild bison. Hence we were quite pessimistic on our journey, but nevertheless wanted to enjoy nature and have a good time.

Reach the town of Hajnowka, we turned off towards the village of Bialowieza, which passes the ancient forest on both sides. En-route Adam wanted to visit a local zoo which housed few of the wildlife specimens in enclosures. I was not too keen, but as he was interested we obliged and went ahead. As with all zoo's we were presented with large enclosures of wildlife in enclosures, sitting in one place, and not looking too healthy. This was not what I had come to seen and hence we did a quick round and headed back out.

En-route I jokingly told Kasha "what if we see bison by the side of the road in the forest" and to which she replied saying "its never going to happen". It didnt take us 10 mins after this conversation, when I noticed some cyclists who have stopped their bicycles and were taking photos of something in the forest with their phones. Then I saw through the trees there was a bison grazing in the forest. I shouted out to Adam to stop the car at once, and I jumped out, and ran to the boot to grab my gear, and walking into the forest towards the cyclists.

When I reached there, my hands were shaking with excitement, I was finally face to face with a real Wild European Bison ! I started clicking away, and I was only around 20-30 meters from this bull. The light was abit harsh as he was out in the open, and the bison was a young bull which hasn't fully matured. He looked at us, and then started rubbing his head and horns on a tree stump. After taking my pictures, I noticed another bison much deeper in the forest. From the darker coat I realized this was a much bigger animal, and also the forest looked much nicer for photography, hence I slowly walked my self around the forest, and deeper inwards to get a nice angle to see this giant.

What I was facing was a fully matured bull, which a gigantic structure and large horns, exactly how I had imagined these animals. A majestic behemoth fitting the role of "King of the Woods". This giant bull was easily 5.5-6 feet at the shoulder and would have weighed between 800-1000 KG. He looked at me head on, and the sight in front of me was amazing, the typical Bialowieza forest full of trees as a backdrop along with the newly bloomed spring flowers on the ground, which gave an almost mystical picture for my camera. I started clicking away, trying to ensure I get as much of the habitat as well. The bull kept watching me, and after about 5-10 minutes, I decided to slowly walk backwards, not to startle it, as we have to remember these are wild animals and can turn aggressive. My heart was racing, and my adrenaline pumping, this was an amazing sighting which was beyond my wildest expectations, and especially so early into the trip. Our car stopping along with the cyclists brought more attention and an increasing number of people were coming to see this spectacle, mainly to see the first bison which was more out in the open. After around 15 minutes more, both animals slowly made their way deeper into the forest.

I was overjoyed and elated, and in utter disbelief in what I had just experienced. I still couldn't fathom that I was so lucky to see these bison, so close to the roadside and even before we had officially reached the town and started our tour with the wildlife guide. We reached the Bialowieza town thereafter and checked into our hotel, before meeting up with our wildlife expert and guide Pawel. He was very knowledgeable and had a deep understanding of the forest. We discussed for over an hour about Bialowieza before heading out with him to cover some of the main areas of the forest. We passed many meadows, where we looked out for more bison as well as other wildlife. Unfortunately we didn't spot much except some roe deer and a lesser spotted eagle far away. I wasn't worried at all , as I had achieved the main target of the trip, and hence discussed on plans to come in a different season and spend more days exploring this unique forest.

The next day we explored the many historical and cultural places in this town. I read that Bialowieza was the chosen hunting reserve for the Russian Tsars who even had an imperial palace in this area. Many of the guest houses and motels are old hunting lodges, with charming decor and memorabilia. There are some amazing restaurants serving some amazing polish food. The forest trails and pathways are many in this area and being the weekend attracted many Polish and foreign visitors to this region.

The bison, known as Zubr in Polish is iconic in this area, with many places, drinks and monuments in its name. The most famous was the Polish vodka Zubrowka, and beer named Zubr which are very popular in this area.

The famous Bison Grass Polish Vodka
And the Zubr Beer ! Zubr means Bison in Polish

Celebrating my sighting with Adam

And Amazing Food !!!

Traditional Polish Dumplings called Pierogi

Even in the capital city, there are many emblems of the bison used in corporate such as banks, which shows who deep the Bison is etched in Polish culture.

Statue of an European Bison in Bialowieza which was cast in St Petersberg Russia, in commemoration of the hunt by the Russian Tzar. 

With our Wildlife Guide Pawel

At the old Railway station by the Carska restaurant. The restaurant is located in an old building of the railway station "Bialowieza Towarowa" built in 1903 for the Tsar Nicholas II. Character and the interior comprised by original furniture of that period, are referring to tzarist times.

I will return back to this amazing land hopefully to spend more time and explore this amazing European wilderness.

1 comment:

  1. Great story, Rajiv. Glad your trip to Poland was crowned with such an astounding success. You make it sound almost too easy!