In the 17th century, the last remaining herds of bison could be found in protected hunting reserves in the forest of Bialowieza (Poland). Thanks to protection measures, the bison number increased to 1,898 in the middle of 19th century. However, in 1862, a rebellion in the Bialowieza region resulted in the bison herd being decimated. There were about 380 animals left by the end of the 19th century, but this number increased again, and 785 animals were recorded in 1915.
Victims of World War I
Unfortunately, these bison became victims of World War I, with German troops occupying Bialowieza killing 600 of the animals for meat, hides, and horns. A German scientist brought to the attention of army officers that the animals were facing imminent extinction, but at the very end of the war, retreating German soldiers shot all but 9 bison. The end of the European bison in the wild occurred in 1919, when a poacher shot the last individual.
Nearly 4 years later, 54 bison were recorded in zoos and private holdings, and Swedish, German, British, and Polish scientists decided to create the Society for the Protection of the European Bison. In 1929, Poland bought 2 cows from Sweden and a bull from Germany. Bison returned to the Bialowieza forest but remained in breeding stations. The first calf was born in the following year.
Reviving bison populations
By the beginning of World War II, the number of bison had increased to 30 in Poland and 35 in German breeding stations. Polish foresters managed to convince Russian officials to protect the bison. Russians posted signs in the Bialowieza forest prohibiting the killing of bison. Offenders would be sentenced to death. When Germany took over the area, they maintained the protection measures. At the end of the war 24 bison had survived in Poland and 12 in Germany.
Reintroduction in the wild
The first reintroduction in the wild took place in 1952, with two bulls released in Bialowieza National Park. Since then, other releases have occurred regularly. Today, there are some 3,200 European bison in the wild, but they still live only in a few isolated areas.
About the species
With a body length of close to 3 metres, and a weight that can reach more than 900 kilogrammes, the European bison is the largest mammal on the continent. Bison are primarily grazers (accounting for 95% of feeding time), though they occasionally browse leaves (3%) or eat bark (2%).
Rutting season for European bison living in the wild is from August to October. Large mating bulls live most of the year alone. During the mating season, the bulls come in from the forest and join the herds of cows and their calves to commence the rut. Pregnancy lasts about nine months. Most calving occurs in May-July.