The Wisent

The wisent (Romanian: zimbru), or European bison (Bison bonasus), is a bison species and the heaviest surviving land animal in Europe. A typical wisent is about 3.0m long and 1.8–2.2m tall, and weighs 300–920kg. It is typically smaller than the related American bison (Bison bison), and has shorter hair on the neck, head, and forequarters, but longer tail and horns. Wisent are now forest-dwelling. They have few predators (besides humans) with only scattered reports from the 1800s of wolf and bear predation. Wisent were first scientifically described by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758. Some later descriptions treat the wisent as conspecific with the American bison. It is not to be confused with the aurochs (Romanian: bour), the extinct ancestor of domestic cattle.

In Western Europe, wisent became extinct by the 11th century, except in the Ardennes, where they lasted into the 14th century. In Moldavia the last wisent was killed in 1762, and in Transylvania in 1790. In north-eastern regions, wisent were legally the property of the Polish kings, Lithuanian grand dukes and Russian czars. King Sigismund I of Poland instituted the death penalty for poaching a wisent (known as żubr in Polish) in the mid-16th century. Despite these measures, and others, the wisent population continued to decline over the following four centuries. Many 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 last wild wisent in Poland was killed in 1919 and the last wild wisent in the world was killed by poachers in 1927 in the Western Caucasus. By that year fewer than 50 remained, all in zoos.

Wisent were reintroduced successfully into the wild, beginning in 1951. Free-ranging herds are found in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan and since 2006 in Moldova. Actually, there were 3,000 individuals (as of 2000), all descended from only 12 individuals. Because of their limited genetic pool, they are considered highly vulnerable to diseases like foot and mouth disease.

In Romania were created four natural reservations for wisents: Haţeg-Slivuţ - the oldest one (Transylvania, November 12, 1958, 6 wisents), Dragoş-Vodă Reservation in Vânători Neamţ (Moldavia, 1968, 4ha, 4 wisents), Bucşani, Dâmboviţa - the largest one (Wallachia, 1980, 162ha, 32 wisents), and Valea Zimbrilor Reservation, Vama Buzăului - the newest (Transylvania, 2008, 92ha, 5 wisents). Now, at Dragoş-Vodă Reservation is under construction a 'Center for Reproduction and Management for the Wisents', with an area of 107ha and all the facilities needed.