Last week a person from the US didn’t believe me that we have bisons in Poland, I had to pull out Wikipedia on my phone to sound believable (oh irony!). In Poland, we call bisons “żubry” (one bison is “żubr”) and Polish people are very proud of them as we have the biggest bison population in Europe. Why am I interested in żubry? They are the largest mammals on the European continent, and the most charismatic representatives of megafauna in Poland, a topic close to my heart! Bisons are considered to be the “umbrella species”, whose well-being also tends to ensure a positive habitat for many other treasured creatures including moose, wolf, and lynx, plus various bird and insect species (Rewilding Europe 2014, Swains 2013). There is fewer European bison than the black rhino in Africa (Swains 2013). Bisons became a symbol of strength in Poland and are very popular, not only due to the vodka with bison grass- Żubrówka. There are over 5500 bisons in Europe, over 1500 of them live in Poland, most of them live freely in state-owned reserves (Borecka Forest), national parks (Bialowieza – pronounced bee-ah-wo-vee-EDGE-ah) but also on private farms and in ZOOs.
History of Żubry in Poland
The biggest herd of bisons in Poland live in the Biał0wieza Park, probably due to the fact that the last European bisons were found in Poland in the 18th century in Białowieża and according to the laws of Polish kings, bisons were the crown’s property who protected them from over hunting. Unfortunately, when the Third Partition of Poland took place and later on during the 1WW last bisons were killed by German soldiers (Żubry 2016) and the population became extinct. The last wild European bison in Poland was killed in 1921. The Polish and German biologists took first steps to restore the species to the wild and the Bison Restitution Centre in Białowieża was established. In 1923 during the Congress of International Union for the Protection of Nature (what is now known as the IUCN), Polish zoologist – Jan Sztolcman presented his project of restoring żubr based on the American experience of restoration efforts of American bison. 2 years later an International Society for Bison Protection was established by Polish and German governments (it is worth noting that all of this took place just a few years after 1WW which ended 123 years of German and Russian rule over Poland, which is quite an impressive level of cooperation to take place between countries who have just been enemies! A great example of environmental peacebuilding!).
At the time there were only 54 European bisons alive in Europe and only 12 of them were able to reproduce, all of these bisons were privately owned outside of Poland. Once again, I would like to emphasize the fact that at the time Poland was struggling to lift its economics after the war and basically trying to rebuild its own identity as a state, so there was not a lot of money dedicated to wildlife protection. However, the nation managed to gather enough money to buy 2 bisons which were placed in Poznan ZOO, the 13-year-old bisons were called Gatczyna and Hagen. These two bisons had 2 babies but unfortunately, both died before reaching the reproductive age.
However, this has led to securing governmental funding for restitution of bisons, this time in Bialowieza. Bisons from Sweden, Denmark and Germany were brought to Poland and finally, a successful reproduction project has started. By the time 2WW broke out, Poland had 39 bisons while overall 115 bisons were living in Europe. During the 2nd World War, a special Polish guerilla unit was responsible for protecting bisons during the German withdrawal from Poland.
In the last 70 years, the Polish żubry were slowly released into the wild in the Bialowieza Park and other areas of Poland. There are currently 596 bisons living at large in Poland, 18 were born within the last year indicating that the population is growing (Lasy Panstwowe). Żubry has been a hot topic in Poland in the last months as the media published articles about the decision to allowed commercial hunters to cull żubry in one of the forest districts managed by a state-owned company. The authorities of Borecka Forest stated that the population has outgrown the forest’s capacity.
Culling of żubry also known as “canned hunt”
Some culling of old, sick or unusually aggressive individuals has, therefore, become necessary, but the process is controversial, particularly since the Polish Ministry of the Environment supported Borecka Forest in selling licenses to commercial hunters for shooting żubry. WWF and Greenpeace have been outraged and started the national campaign against the government. This is not a new precedent, culling of wild animals has always taken place, it happens every year in Bialowieza Park as well. The difference between the national park and a forest area run by a state-owned company is that in the park, culling is done by employees and vets, in the forest districts culling is turned into an income-generating commercial hunt. It can be understandable why a company would like to earn money on the bisons, however, the numbers of żubry killed in forest districts are higher than the numbers in national parks. This could mean that the state-owned companies are using false information about wildlife protection in order to earn money for killing a protected species. I would like to question the ethics of this practice.
Reasons for culling of żubry: (according to Polish government)
- due to habitat capacity and potential damage to crops and to the forest, the population of bisons in Borecka forest should not go over 85-90 żubry, there are 108 żubry at the moment.
- the National Strategy for Bison Protection prioritizes the survival of population over individuals
- bisons destined for culling were either old, contracted with TB or have shown signs of aggression towards people
- there are no other areas in Poland or Europe ready for an extra intake of bisons, it takes years to prepare a forest area for a bison population (Lasy Panstwowe)
- 59 bisons have been culled in years 2012-2016 in the Borecka forest, this is the only reserve in Poland that allows culling of bisons and has staff trained to do it
- Bisons are selected for culling by a special commission of park employees
- By allowing game hunters to shoot bisons, the Borecka Forest earned 1,5mln PLN, but the park also spent 3,1mln PLN for conservation of bisons
Two days ago the Polish government released a statement claiming that the culling in Boreckaki Forest has been conducted in line with the national standards and was necessary. However, this statement hasn’t been supported by any official reports that would prove that the selections of bisons for culling was conducted by professional staff, nor is it possible to see a transparent financial record of the Borecka Forest. FYI Borecka forest is quite well known in Poland for hunting, even the Spanish king Juan Carlos shot a bison in there…
Żubry in Polish media
A new, independent, citizen-led newsroom “Oko.press” was the whistleblower in the żubry case in Poland. Their article “Kill the bison”(“Zabić żubra“) brought bisons to the headlines and kicked off a war between the new far-right government and the independent media. Allowing the commercial hunters to access reserves in Poland is an achievement of an active lobbying of hunting associations and forest rangers and it has taken place for years before. However, this year the topic finally got the headlines and gained attention. This might because the charismatic animals are increasingly popular in the media and are often used in political battles.
Both the Environment Minister and the General Director of Environmental Protection are hunters themselves. Moreover, the chair of European Association of Bison – Professor Wanda Olech-Piasecka is also a supporter of wildlife utilization, she has been supporting cullings of bisons. According to her, we should stop impersonating żubry and approach this topic pragmatically, I wonder how such a person can be chairing a pro-animal association? This means that the government bodies are pro-hunting and will continue to allow commercial hunting of bisons, what is the point of shooting animals that we are trying to protect in the first place?
Against culling (Greenpeace, WWF, and media)
- Damages caused by bisons count up to 3-4% of all the damages done by wild animals
- There are known examples where lonely bisons who left their herds were not posing any danger to local communities, including the example in Belarus in 2016 when a male bison joined a herd of cows
- Culling of older bisons violates the natural hierarchy structure of the herd
- Allowing bisons to die naturally ensures that ecosystem utilises the corps (it can be used as food for other species such as wolves and foxes)
- Cullings are also taking place in National Parks, like in Bialowieza, however, annually only 5-8 bisons (out of 600) are killed by park staff, commercial hunting is never allowed, while in the areas governed by state-owned companies (Lasy Panstwowe) like in Borecka Forest, commercial hunting is allowed on much larger scale as the money goes straight to the company
- There are examples where bisons were moved to Borecka Forest and then declared ill and destined for commercial hunting, these would be young bisons kept in captive farms before, sometimes the reason behind culling is simply the way the particular bison looks like, if it isn’t big enough or have any other abnormalities the park rangers decide that they want to keep the genes clean, in other words: people are shaping the way the species look…
- Also, female bisons are targeted for culling, as apparently, they are delivering babies when they are too old
- 86% out of 45 reported incidents of bison attacks on people happened because of people’s provocation; attacked people are usually wildlife photographers or park staff
- If culling is only an ad-hoc activity that takes place only when bison is ill or aggressive, why does the website of Borecka Forest advertise a fixed season of cullings from November to February?
- The human-wildlife conflict can be prevented, just like it was in Bialowieza where the Park signed an agreement with 50 farmers whose lands were adjacent to the Park’s borders. The Polish farmers would receive payments for allowing bisons to graze on their lands, moreover, before winter farmers would also have to prepare the hay stacks for bisons
- Unfortunately, the current government does not want to continue this project and has stopped funding, even though this program was welcomed by the region for 10 years. It was a very popular and successful program which positively influenced the way local farmers perceived bisons.
- Instead, government officials claim that the income from commercial hunting goes towards sustaining the bison population in Poland. However, when comparing the income generated from the trophy hunting of bisons in 2014 in Poland with the overall costs of feeding and protecting bisons, the income accounts to 0,007% of the annual revenue of the Polish State Forestry company. Is it really worth it to kill our national symbol and the country’s most charismatic animal to earn 0,007%?
- Maybe the costs of protecting żubry would be smaller if the management of Borecka Forest would stop overfeeding these animals with hay, according to last years records, Borecka forest gave out 900 tons of hay for 110 while the National Park managing population of 600 bisons gives out only 200 tons of hay (Tomaszkiewicz 2017) . Overfeeding leads to increased in population, an increase in population leads to killing żubry, simple as that.
This short video shows how commercial “hunting” of bison looks like, this video was taken in Poland in 2014, the hunter is German and staff is Polish. Basically, the “hunter” follows the bison, who is used to people and is not worried about their close presence. Hunter waited for the bison to leave the herd and he then shot the animal from a close distance, after short agony the bison dies. Member of reserve soaks small branch in the dead bison’s blood and gives it to the hunter who sticks it behind his hat. What is this? Is that what you call hunting? That is just disgusting and disgraceful and I don’t understand why this poor bison had to die for someone’s 10 seconds of glory. I bet the hunter felt like a “real man”.
Safari International is also advertising hunting of bisons in the season of November to March, they even have a set price for “Wounded and lost Bison” – I thought that doesn’t happen according to the Borecka Forest authorities? In comparison, there are over 20 000 elks in Poland, their population has grown rapidly since the hunting ban in 2001. Elks cause far more road accidents and crop damage than bisons, yet barely any are culled – not that I think we should be culling moose! Why is that? The explanation is simple, bisons make much more impressive trophies than moose. We need to stop treating bisons as breeding animals in Poland and applying culling measures to the management of protected species.
I am not sure why this ridiculous waste of life is taking place. Bisons are Poland’s most charismatic animals and for decades the Polish state tried to restore this beautiful species. Now, they are being used for income generating under false presumptions. I am one of the biggest opponent of culling, however, I understand that that is necessary in some cases and it may save lives of other animals. I can understand culling of very ill or aggressive bisons conducted by trained member of park staff. What I don’t understand is agreeing to enlarge an existing herd of żubry to then kill the surplus bisons and make money on this by selling the licences to commercial hunters who shoot animals that are not even scared of people. Does this money really go to the forest and maintaining of bison population, I doubt it. I have analysed the concept of wildlife utilisation and commercial trophy hunting here.
Or maybe we should take the Danish approach to bisons and appreciate their good influence on the ecosystem? In 2012 the Danish island Bornholm welcomed seven bisons from Poland and since then researcher’s have been studying their influence on nature and tourism.
“Denmark hopes the bison will help the island’s biodiversity by conserving meadows, as they like to eat tree bark.
The bison numbers may grow and tourism may also benefit from their presence.”
The Danish Nature Agency told BBC that they need big mammals to increase the biodiversity on the island. This rewilding project started almost 5 years ago and hopefully this year the żubry will be released into the wild. The decision to take fences down is in the hands of the local community who needs to decide if they feel comfortable with bisons roaring freely on Bornholm. The project is funded by the Villum Foundation which granted over 4mln DK for this research and it aims at not only reintroducing bisons to Danish environment but also at boosting the local economy through tourism. Since 2012 the project has been very successful: the bison herd has now doubled its size, while just in 2014 over 200,000 tourists came to see the bisons in Bornholm.
“Living in nature, the large animals will create a sense of dynamism in the forest floor and scrub, grazing on new growth and maintaining open grassland, thereby aiding biodiversity through ensuring space for more species.”
Here you can watch a video of how tourists can observe the bisons in Bornholm (subtitles are in Danish).
Share your thoughts below or sign the petition to the Polish Prime Minister demanding to put an end to this cruel practice!
Watch how bisons react to wolves visiting their meadow (Bisons won!): (Bialowieza Park)
CPH Post Online (2015) Making Denmark Wild Again.
Didriksen, U. (2015) Meet a Bison on Bornholm.
Ekologia.pl (2014) Hektary łąk dla białowieskich żubrów.
Gabbatis, J. (2016) The Zoo that wants to release wild elephants in Denmark. BBC Earth.
Greenpeace (2016) Nie zabijaniu żubrów. Petycja
Kepel, A. (2016) Zapolować na żubra. Prawo (nie doskonałe). Salamandra(1) 41.
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Kowalski, R., Grela, S. (2016) Zielone ludziki ministra Szyszki. Oko.press
Krawczyk, J. (2017) W puszczy Białowieskiej żyje coraz więcej żubrów. Lasy państwowe.
Krzemień, E. (2016) Egzekucja z dwudziestu metrów. Tak wygląda “polowanie” na żubry.Oko.press
Krzemień, E. (2016) Zabić żubra. Oko.press
Lyman, R. (2015) Poland Wants Bison to Multiply, but Others Prefer Subtraction. The New York Times.
Nyborg, I. (2013) Forskere tror bison vil redde dansk natur. ABC Nyheter
Rewilding Europe (2014) Bison rewilding plan in Europe 2014-2024. Rewilding Europe’s contribution to the comeback of the European bison.
Rewilding Europe (2015) Return of the European Bison
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Swains, H. (2013) European Bison in the crosshairs of conservation battle. CNN.
Tomaszkiewicz, M. (2017) Polowanie na żubra? “Jeśli musimy je zabijać, to jest to porażka naszego systemu ochrony przyrody”. Newsweek
Trębski, K. (2017) Kontrola ws.odstrzału żubrów zakończona. Lasy Państwowe.
Tylkoprzyroda.pl (2016) Na Białorusi żubr uciekł z puszczy i zintegrował się ze stadem krów z kołchozu.
Specjalne podziekowania dla Lucjana Jakuczuna za piekne zdjecia.