Photo by Grzegorz Lesniewski
Suddenly, Tomasz stops. “Bison… Bison,” he whispers, pointing towards a stand of sun-dappled beech and maple trees. Even through binoculars I cannot see anything but foliage, tree trunks and shadows. Then something moves.
One of the shadows has a tail. A group of five or six bison is grazing among the trees. Despite their massive size, standing at least two meters at the shoulder, measuring around three meters long and weighing around 800kg, they are almost silent and their dusty grey flanks provide near-perfect camouflage among the trunks. We watch in rapt silence for more than ten minutes as the bison gradually move down a gentle slope, before slowly disappearing once again into the depths of Bialowieza Forest – one of the last remnants of the vast primeval forest that once covered central Europe.
By the early 1920s there were just 54 European bison left in the world. A select few from European zoos were introduced into this national park and their descendants have been here ever since, even managing to survive World War II, when they were hunted for food.
Tomasz Kaminski is a biologist at Poland’s Mammal Research Institute. “They were saved from extinction and now they live in freedom in a large European country like Poland,” he says.“It just shows how flexible they are as a species. They’re the largest terrestrial animals in Europe and they’re absolutely fascinating creatures, especially as – even somewhere like this – they’re living in a place that’s heavily influenced by people and is a mixture of forest and farmland.
“Every time I see them I’m amazed.”