The billboard on the side of the road could make anyone curious. We had never seen a live wisent before. This was our chance. The narrow and winding paved road takes us through the thick forest until we reach the gates. It looks completely isolated and we can barely make up where we came from. We didn’t know what to expect. Were they free, roaming through the woods? Will we have to walk around to find them? Well…no. After we paid the entrance fee and had a little chat with the woman in charge, we found that the wisents actually live in a 5 ha stable, divided into two parts. The smaller is the visiting area, while the other is in the forest, where they sleep. A dirt road (and by dirt I mean mud, it was a rainy spring) takes us behind the houses and into an opening where we struggle to make up the silhouettes of the mighty wisents.
Hundreds of years ago the wisents filled the forests of Europe. Their close relatives, the American buffalo are, however, slightly bigger. These impressively large animals remind of some long forgotten mythological creature, with their hunched back and long hair growing under their heads, like a beard. Due to their stature, they didn’t have many natural predators besides man. Their number began to decrease in the wild along with the growth of population on the continent. Their extinction was the result of mindless hunting. The first signs of their disappearance were noted in the 8th century. The last wild wisent was killed in Transylvania in 1790. Ever since, a small number of these animals have survived in captivity in Poland, Lithuania and Russia.
Starting with 1951, the wisent has been reintroduced into wilderness in Poland and Belarus. Herds are also found in Lithuania, Ukraine, Russia, Slovakia, Moldavia and Romania. In the year 2000 they reached 3000 in number. They all came from 12 wisent specimens. On the 12th of November 1958 the Slivut Reservation in Hateg (Romania) received a single pair of wisent from Poland. Soon after, their calves were moved into some new reservations in Vanatori Neamt, Dambovita and Vama Buzaului near Brasov.
The wisent is the heaviest dry land animal in Europe. A male can reach up to 920 kg and a female up to 640 kg. One of the male’s characteristic is the disproportion between the foreside and the backside of their bodies. They spend most of their day eating, especially before sunrise, in order to fill their four stomach chambers. Afterwards they rest and chew the various plants they fed on. Their gray-brown hair blends in with the surrounding nature.
Due to their resemblance, the wisent is often confused with the aurochs, the symbol of Moldavia, whilst the wisent is the symbol of Belarus.
We counted five wisents in the stables. As soon as he saw us, the calf reached to us, perhaps expecting something to eat or some affection. One of the females, probably the oldest, judging by its size, was constantly following our every move and getting in between us. Was she the mother, trying to protect her baby? Anyway, her piercing look intimidated us and we soon gave up on taking close-up pictures of the calf. We resumed to watching them from a distance.