Wisent (European wood bison) and aurochs (extinct wild ox)

There are two species related to modern cattle that hold a significant importance in Poland. One of them is wisent (Polish: żubr), commonly called an ‘European bison’, which you can see nowadays in the wild in many sites not only in Poland but also in other European countries where it was reintroduced. Second is aurochs (Polish: tur) – an extinct species of European wild ox, ancestral to domesticated cattle.

Below you can read a few basic informations about them and about their relations to Polish geography, history and culture.


in Polish: żubr, plural żubry

Żubry – Wisents (European Bisons). Photography © Krzysztof Onikijuk, via Żubry Online
Żubry – Wisents (European Bisons). Photography © Krzysztof Onikijuk, via Żubry Online

Wisent (Polish: żubr), also called an European bison, is an endangered animal living in the wild in various types of reserves nowadays. They are related to the American bisons.

Wisents became almost extinct in the early 20th century, notably affected by the 1st World War. The last truly wild herds of them were living in the Białowieża Forest (primeval forest located on the modern Polish-Belarusian border) and in the Caucasus Mountains. These were the lowland and highland subspecies respectively.

Source: Bison Specialist Group – Europe

The very last wild wisent was shot in 1926/7 in the Caucasus, and as a species they survived only in various zoos spread across central Europe.

Since then they have been under a strict protection and breeding programs, and were eventually reintroduced into the wild in a few countries.

Source: Bison Specialist Group – Europe

Nowadays you can see many of them either in the wild (in nature reserves) or in breeding centers where they live in enclosures. They live mainly in Poland, Belarus, Russia, Germany, and there are also smaller populations for example in Czech Republic, Lithuania, Ukraine, France, Sweden, Austria, Great Britain, or Denmark [full list from 2014].

The biggest herd is cultivated in the Białowieża (PL) / Belovezha (BY) Nature Reserves: over 1000 wisents in total living on both Polish and Belarusian sides of the border – the largest group in Europe. They represent mostly the Lowland line of wisents. Another big herd lives in the region of Bieszczady (PL), representing a mixed Lowland-Caucasus line. Other bigger herds of over 200 animals can be found for example in reserves of Osipovichskijj Leshoz (BY) or Orlovskoe Poles’e (RU).

In total, there are around 5200 wisents living in various European reserves now.

Wisents differ anatomically from the American bisons: they tend to be larger (taller) and sleeker – they have 1 pair of ribs less – they have longer legs and different hair. They grow different horns – more pointy to the front in comparison to their American brothers. Their neck is set differently, resulting in a more-upwards position of not only their heads but also of the whole posture.

Source: Bison Specialist Group – Europe

Apart from the looks, wisents differ from the American bisons also in characters. They are described as less tameable than their American brothers, they also never breed with domestic cattle in the wild (unlike the American cattle-bison hybrid). When looking for food they tend to browse rather than graze, what differs them from the American bisons as well.

Origins of both European and American bisons could be traced to central Asia:

Source: Bison Specialist Group – Europe



Aurochs. Author: phan-tom.deviantart.com
Possible size of an aurochs. Source: Wikipedia

This was an aurochs (Polish: tur), it’s an extinct species of wild ox, and an ancestor of domestic cattle.

Domestication of the aurochs began in the southern Caucasus and northern Mesopotamia about 8000-9000 years ago. Genetic evidence suggests that aurochs were independently domesticated in India and possibly also in northern Africa.

The map below show historical spread of these three main subspecies of aurochs:

Historical distribution of the three subspecies of Bos primigenius (aurochs) habitat. Source: Wikipedia.

The aurochs was an important game animal appearing in both Paleolithic European and Mesopotamian cave paintings.

For example, the famous Lascaux paintings show one of ancient subspecies related to aurochs:

Lascaux cave paintings. Source: Wikipedia.

Aurochs were famous for the massive size of their horns, and used to be hunted for that particular reason since the ancient to the medieval times. Their horns could reach 80 cm (31 in) in length, and between 10-20 cm (3.9-7.9 in) in diameter. Due to the size they were popular as a material for hunting horns and drinking horns.

Already in the times of Herodotus (5th century BC) aurochs was noted to be disappearing from the southern Europe. By the 13th century AD, the wild aurochs were living only in Eastern Europe, notably around the areas of modern-day Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine, Romania and Moldova.

The wild aurochs, along with the wisents, were under protection in the Polish Kingdom and later the Polish-Lithuanian Commonweath. The rights to hunt were restricted first to the noble families and then, gradually, only to the royal households. As the population of aurochs was declining, hunting ceased, and the royal court used gamekeepers to provide open fields for grazing for the aurochs. The gamekeepers were exempted from local taxes in exchange for their service. Poaching aurochs was punishable by death.

Despite all these efforts, the population of aurochs was declining. According to the royal survey from the Jaktorów Forest, Poland (where the last recorded herd of aurochs was living) there were only 50 aurochs in the year 1557, then 24 in the year 1599, and eventually only 4 left in the year 1601 after a tragic disease spread on them by domestic cattle.

The last recorded living aurochs, a female, died in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest from natural causes. She is commemorated in Jaktorów until nowadays:

Symbolic monument to the last aurochs in Jaktorów, Poland. Source: Wikipedia – Jaktorów

One of the most famous mementos is a decoration made of a horn of one of the last aurochs, prepared on the order of local authority Stanisław Radziejowski in 1620.

It was gifted to the Polish king Sigismund III Vasa, and is kept in the Swedish Livrustkammaren Museum nowadays. The Polish-language inscription around its mouthpiece describes it as a horn of the last aurochs from Sochaczewski Forest:

Horn of the last aurochs. Photography © Livrustkammaren

Aurochs (tur in Polish language) is still partly alive in the Polish mythology and folk customs – for example, a person dressed as a so-called turoń (name derived from the name of the extinct animal) appears with traditional groups of kolędnicy (Slavic carolers):

Turoń, a symbolic creature appears in Polish customs of old Slavic origins. Photography © Globtrotter Kraków

To read more:

  1. Bison Specialist Group – Europe
  2. European Bison: The Nature Monograph
  3. European bison on Wikipedia
  4. The Aurochs – Born to be Wild
  5. Aurochs on Wikipedia / Tur on Wikipedia

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