The Wisent or European Bison (Bison bonasus) is a bison species and the heaviest land animal in Europe. A typical wisent is about 9.5 ft (2.9 m) long and 5.9-6.5 (1.8″“2 m) tall, and weighs 661 2,204.6 lbs (300 to 1000) kg. It is typically more massive than the related American bison, and has shorter hair on the neck, head, and forequarters, but longer tail and horns. Wisents are forest dwelling. They have few predators with only scattered reports from the 1800s of wolf and bear predation. Wisents were first scientifically described by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758.

The species is now endangered. In the past they were commonly killed to produce hides and drinking horns especially in the Middle Ages.


About 2000 years ago wisents lived in most of Europe – from Britain to the west to Siberia in the east, from Spain in the south to Sweden in the north. Wisents lived not only in the forests but also roamed the grasslands of Europe.

In Western Europe, wisents were extinct by the 11th century except in the Ardennes, where they lasted into the 14th century. The last wisent in Transylvania died in 1790.

In the east, wisents were legally the property of the Polish kings, Lithuanian princes and Russian Tsars. King Sigismund the Old of Poland instituted the death penalty for poaching a wisent in the mid-1500s. Despite these and other measures, the wisent population continued to decline over the following four centuries. The last wild wisent in Poland was killed in 1919 and poachers killed the last wild wisent in the world 1927 in the Western Caucasus. By that year fewer than 50 remained, all in zoos.

Wisents were re-introduced successfully into the wild beginning in 1951. They are found living free-ranging in forest preserves like Western Caucasus in Russia and Białowieża Forest in Poland and Belarus. Free-ranging herds are found in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan and since 2006 in Moldova. There are plans to re-introduce two herds in northern Germany. Zoos in 30 countries also have quite a few animals. There were 3000 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.

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Wisent has lived as long as 28 years in captivity although in the wild their lifespan is shorter. Productive breeding years are between 4 and 20 years old in females and only between 6 and 12 years old in males. Wisents occupy home ranges of as much as 62 square miles and some herds are found to prefer meadows and open areas in forests.

Wisent can crossbreed with American Bison. The products of a German interbreeding program were destroyed after World War II. This program was related to the impulse, which created the Heck cattle. The crossbred individuals created at other zoos were eliminated from breed books by the 1950s. A Russian back-breeding program resulted in a wild herd of hybrid animals, which presently lives in the Caucasian Biosphere Reserve (550 individuals in 1999).

PHOTO CREDIT: Museums of Russia http://www.museum.ru