On the trail of the mighty beast

The lowland bison, Europe's largest animal, has survived near extinction thanks to the efforts of a few Polish rangers. David Nicholson braves the undergrowth to see for himself
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The forest is hushed. Light snow covers the grass as we tread softly along a track towards an open glade. Piroznikow stops, holding up his hand. Eyebrows like a Politburo veteran, aged 76, smoking his tenth cigarette of the morning, he nods towards a corner of the clearing. There it is, my first bison.

It smells, hears or possibly sees us and turns, loping in a heavy, slow- motion gait off into the forest. Piroznikow has lived with bison for years and decides to stay in the clearing. I am drawn like a dog to a thrown stick, picking my way through the undergrowth, eyes and ears pricked. I can hear its thick snort, can see its hoof prints in the mud, but it stays out of sight. But still I pursue it, pacing like Corporal Pike in the Dad's Army credits, but to no avail. The forest is like an aural hall of mirrors; sounds echo from tree to tree, losing their direction. Piroznikow has to call me several times before I manage to locate him again.

This is Bialowieza, slap on Poland's eastern border with Belarus, 200km east of Warsaw. It is one of 22 national parks in the country and has the world's largest stock of European bison, around 240 animals living wild among the birches and oaks. I've come to this park to meet Wlodzimierz (Vladek) Piroznikow and be guided by him into the heart of this wilderness, to see the animals he has reared and tended since the Fifties.

By 1919 the European bison was virtually extinct. Only a handful survived in zoos: the free-living ones had been shot by Polish and Russian aristocrats keen to add the impressive horns to their big game collections. Today, thanks to the efforts of the Polish rangers, there are 3,099 in reservations and parks, more than half of them free-living. Hunting is once again possible, under strict conditions. Bulls which have passed their reproductive prime and become a nuisance to the herd are captured and taken to a designated reserve, where parties can go with a guide to shoot them.

Piroznikow has been such a guide on many occasions. He once took the German tycoon Helmut Horten and his wife for a shoot. Horten sportingly offered her the first crack once they came in range. She was an excellent class shot, but after two rounds the animal began to rumble towards them. Frau Horten fled in panic and Piroznikow popped in a couple more shots, but on it came. It was only with the fifth bullet that the bison sank to its knees and keeled over. When they came to open it up, they found all five rounds in its heart. "I discovered that shooting just below the ear was better," says Piroznikow. "You have to cut its windpipe."

Though infrequent, the trips are big money-spinners for the Polish park authorities. Bison hunting can cost pounds 5,000 for a three- or four-day jolly: it often takes this long to find the animal. The final price depends on its size, and weights of 1,000kg are common. "It is very good meat," Piroznikow tells me, adding that the older ones have to be cooked for six or seven hours before they are tender.

With or without bison, Bialowieza is hauntingly beautiful. It is as near to virgin forest as Europe can provide, with endless species of animals, plants and insects. There are six different kinds of woodpecker alone, besides wolves, lynx, wild boar, eagles and foxes. No hunting is permitted here, except culling by rangers for particular reasons. Piroznikow has been called out to "eliminate" (as he calls it) bison which have wandered into villages and frightened children.

On the whole they are not dangerous. Piroznikow knows of no deaths, though horses have been killed on the roads and a ranger once broke his hip and ribs when trying to catch one. Only mothers with small calves are potentially troublesome to people, especially if they bring dogs into the forest. "It reminds the bison of wolves, so they can become angry," he says.

We tour some other clearings where food is laid out each day for the bison to eat. Unfortunately there is too little snow: with a thick covering they are keener for this feed since the forest grass is out of reach. As we walk, Piroznikow tells me his history: captured by the Russians at the start of the Second World War and sent to the Gulag, he nearly starved and froze to death. An amnesty arranged during the war brought him to England where he served in the air force. After the war, he returned to Poland to join the fledgling bison breeding programme: it had only 12 animals in 1950, rising to 600 by 1965. An export programme was launched, and today there are European bison across the continent, plus others in the States, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa and Brazil, all stemming from common Polish ancestry. Woburn has a couple, Whipsnade has eight and one or two private stately homes have some.

The European breed is known as "lowland" bison, similar to the animals to be found in North America. A smaller, mountain breed called the Caucasus became extinct in the first years of this century. It is quite a wonder that it survived at all, given the tiny numbers that were left at the end of First World War. It is Europe's largest animal, a magnificent relic of pre-history and the symbol most vividly depicted by early hunters on cave walls in France, for example. Its vast humped back, its low haunches - which drop further when it is about to charge - and great auburn coat ... there is something mythical about it, made all the more potent by the difficulty of actually sighting one. It's just out there, somewhere.

Although hunters may take days to track a bison, the shooting itself is not terribly demanding, according to Piroznikow. There is the small chance that it will charge towards you, but in the main it just stands there chewing the cud, "like a cow", he says. Hunters come because they have shot plenty of deer, wild boar and maybe some African game; bison represent a gap in their trophy room. There are certainly more visitors to Poland aiming to spot the wildlife than those intent on potting it. Piroznikow has hosted groups of several dozen tourists in Bielowieza spending Christmas in the depths of this untouched forest, eating mounds of game, then taking horse and cart rides through the trees and over the thick snow. Temperatures of minus 37 are recorded many years, killing some of the roe deer but leaving the bison unmoved.

Botanists come in the summer, finding species unseen anywhere else in the world. The grass eaten and dumped on by bison is said to have a number of special qualities. It is added to vodka to produce a delightful herbal brand (Bison vodka) with a light green tinge and a kick like its namesake. It can be used as a form of mothballing and eases arthritic pain, says Piroznikow. The forest certainly has that rich, yeasty smell which Britain's woods - over-run by mountain- bikers and picnickers - seem to have lost. And it is so huge and distant from any town that nothing spoils the peace.

A single disused train line runs towards Belarus. Once away from the few tracks and fewer roads, you could easily become lost in the 171-hectare wilderness with nothing but the snort and rattle of unseen bison for company. Visitors to Bialowieza are not formally allowed to roam the forest at will: the park authorities insist on qualified rangers going with you, though one of the feeding places was also signposted as a picnic area, giving me visions of Yosemite-like scenes of bison munching a petrified family's sandwiches.

There are marshy areas which are home to swans, geese, storks and elk who, for some reason, like the boggy ground. Indeed, the geology and plant covering are just right for bisons: some experiments in stocking forests with bison have failed because the water table and fauna aren't to their taste. Bialowieza means "white tower" in Polish, deriving from the story of King Zygmunt Stary's 16th-century hunting days, when he built a tower as a look-out for bison. He and succeeding monarchs protected their bison herds with great care, allowing no one but themselves the pleasure of the hunt. Russia ruled the area in the late 19th century and Tsar Alexander I would come to slaughter up to 28 pieces at a time. With the outbreak of the First World War and the Russian revolution, bison were poached on a massive scale: Bialowieza lost its final animal in 1919 and there was a 19-year gap before any were brought back.

Commercial bison hunting only began officially in 1960 with occasional hunts, but in the Eighties it became seriously popular and the national hunting company (part of Orbis travel agency) began turning over pounds 10m a year. Today, the fall of communism has allowed private firms to spring up: at least 140 agencies offer various forms of hunt in the country. An American bison hunter remarked that he would happily have paid $20,000 rather than the $7,000 he actually shelled out for the honour. "Poland is the only country in the world where I can still hunt bison," he said.

Alongside the business boom has developed a protest movement, with students and activists chaining themselves to railings and chucking red paint over fur-coated women. "We agree with some of the activists' ideas," says Ferdynand Bejger at the Polish ministry for environmental protection, "but they see only the simple side of the issue. Some of these animals do terrible damage to the forest environment." He aims to find a castle in one of the forests where animals could be reared nearby. "This would be very pleasant for wealthy foreign hunters," says Bejger.

This is an unrepresentative view, since even Piroznikow has qualms about the sport. He is an ecologist at heart, talking of protecting nature as the world's greatest priority and refusing to say how many bison he has dispatched. "I don't even talk about it with my wife. It's a bloody job," and he shakes his head. I certainly had no urge to blast a hole in the bison we spotted. And even if you did top one it would be a hell of a job carting it back home for the freezer. Imagine 1,000kg of steaks in among the Bird's Eye peas.

It would only appeal to me in some post-nuclear catastrophe scenario where humankind had to revert to the cave dwelling routine of hunting to live. Then, the bison would be the biggest prize of all, the one I'd lovingly depict on my wall to whet my appetite for the chase. It's a noble beast and thank God the Poles have kept its spirit alive in the silent woods.

! For further information about travelling to Poland, contact the Polish travel centre Orbis on 0171 636 2217. Orbis can arrange flights to Warsaw from around pounds 190, travel from there to Bialowieza by train and accommodaion. For general information about Bialowieza National Park, contact the Polish Tourist Office on 0171 580 8811. For information on tracking bison call Animex in Warsaw on 00 48 2230 2907

! The contact number for Tropic Ecological Adventures in Ecuador, published on 5 January, has changed. You should now call 00 593 256 0756