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Wisenten in the dunes of Holland: a big game safari. January 2013.

A 10 cm snow cover, -5 Celsius, strong NE wind, a perfect day for spotting wisenten during a special excursion with a ranger.

(Note: click on photos for single, large view)

Wistenten herd

Wisenten in het Kraanvlak, coastal dunes


Wisenten roaming freely in the coastal dunes of Holland? Sounds tricky, but they are no less dangerous than other large animals like deer or wild boar still common in Holland, or moose in Sweden and Norway.

If you keep a distance of least 100 m, it will be safe. Problems start with the odd bully tourist trying to get as close as possible or even dare them for a chase.

Unfortunately, they are not as shy as moose, deer and wild boar and tend to hold their ground until 50 m as their instinct tells them they should not be afraid of predators being in a herd.

A breeding program for wisenten was started in 1923 and they were again introduced into the wild in Poland and Russia from zoo animals some 60 years ago. There are now some 3000 animals in natural areas and in zoo's.

The last wild animals were killed in the forest of Bialowieza in Poland in 1919 and in the Caucasus in 1926. They used to be common in Europe years until 1600 years ago.

Once a month a wisenten trip is organized by the park authorities responsible for the coastal dune area near Haarlem. This is a 6 km wide strip of dunes along the coast characterized by an undulating landscape of low mounts, forest and sand patches. A ranger will guide you inside the park, normally closed for visitors, and you will be able to sneak up to the wisenten herd of 16 animals.

Wisent animal, left, with a GPS collar.

One animal has a GPS collar and their route is shown on a website, www.wisenten.nl/waarzijnze, their location uploaded once every 1 to 4 hours. The animals all stay close together and the herd now has 16 animals, increasing by one or two animals a year. Above 20 they may split-up in two herd.

Young bulls were introduced a few years ago but they died of worms already picked up in their previous habitat.



Map of the area with the western trail (in yellow) inside and outside the wisenten area.

A single trail crosses the area in the North but usually the animals are in the SW. Using the Western trail outside the area close to the fence, you may be able to see them. It helps to check their location on the website as they do not move fast, at most 1 km per hour, and they may stay in a single area for up to 8 hours.


Sneaking up to the herd


Saturday 19 January was ideal for such a trip. it was cold, -5 Celsius. This would be considered a nice winter day in Eastern Europe but in terms of Dutch standards, severe winter conditions. In Holland we always blame the humidity to talk down the temperature and also add a chill factor.

We met on the parking lot of the Wethouder van Geluk Park outside the Bokkedoorns Restaurant which was closed on Saturday for lunch. There were 15 participants plus the ranger, some were amateur photographers, carrying big telescope lenses, the size of big guns.

As we came by bike, a hot coffee would be welcome but the restaurant has a Michelin star and only serves proper meals. Fortunately, the door was not closed and we could use the toilet and warm up.

The last location of the wisenten in the morning was relatively close, just behind a forest, sheltered from the cold NE wind.

They moved a km South this morning and now were in a sheltered area n hidden, between mounts, near the electric fence, closed to were we started. Luckily we spotted them in time, we didn't expect them here, and only had to walk a short distance through the 10 cm of snow cover.

Wistenten herd. With Koen, the park ranger.


The herd was in a sheltered area and we stayed higher up, having an excellent view. At first they were a bit shy, moving away from us, but they relaxed and we could get very near, at only a 25 m distance.

You could hear repetitive clicks of the cameras and on this day a few thousand pictures must have been taken. I shot 200 pictures only.

Wistenten herd.

Wistenten herd.


The herd was just grazing, not much happened. The most interesting was an animal standing on two legs trying to reach the higher branches to eat the bark.

Why they eat bark is unclear. It could be the same reason as caribou (and raindeer) eating caribou moss which is nutritious but has few calories and is a starving diet. Apparantly, caribou eat moss to avoid drying out as grass requires much more water to digest and water is not readily available in the winter. Eating snow should be avoided as would requires extra calories.


More information.

[Flier], in Dutch.

Wisents at Kraansvlak, from www.wisenten.nlIn the spring of 2007 the 200 ha sand dune area Kraansvlak, a closed-off area near the Kennemer Dunes, has become the territory of a group of wisents. Between 2007 and 2011 a pilot project with wisents put out into a Dutch natural area had been carried out, accompanied by scientific research. It is a cooperative project of PWN Waterleidingbedrijf Noord-Holland, Stichting Duinbehoud, ARK and Stichting Kritisch Bosbeheer.
The aim of the project is to acquire knowledge and experience with wisents in the Dutch situation, the food strategy (no supplementary feeding) and the effects of this animal species on the sand dune landscape, dune dynamics and dune vegetation. The herd will develop naturally during the project, making a contribution to the preservation of this endangered species. The practical experience and knowledge gained may be used for a possible future reintroduction of this wild bovine species to other natural areas in the Netherlands or abroad.
Besides the interaction between wisent and landscape, also the co-existence with other grazers as well as human visitors will be studied. The project has begon with an acclimatization period, during which the animals can only be watched from a viewpoint or through the fencing. Excursions into the area are now organized.
Wisent: history

From: http://www.wisenten.nl/wisenten-uk/wisent/history
The first wisentlike animals appeared 2 to 3 million years ago in South and East Asia. Their successors colonized North-America, evolving into the American bison. An other branch colonized Europe and evolved into steppe wisent, who, together with mammoths and woolly rhinoceros, inhabited Europe during the Ice Ages. After the last Ice Age steppe wisent, mammoth and woolly rhinoceros disappeared. The current wisent, also called European bison, evolved from steppe wisent or a close relative. When the climate became warmer the wisent colonized large parts of Europe: from South-England to the depths of Russia and the Pyrenees, North-Italy and the Balkans to South-Sweden.
This situation continued almost unaffected as late as the year 400, but from then on it was going downhill. Just like other large mammals, like aurochs and tarpan (European wild horse), they began to disappear from more and more areas in Europe. Hunting, poaching, cultivation of habitats and competition with domestic cattle were the major causes, and their decline kept pace with the increase of the population. In England the species disappeared in the 12th century, in South-Sweden in the 11th century and in France and Germany in the 14th century. Only in the East of Europe the species held out in the last uncultivated areas and the hunting grounds of the nobility. The last wild specimens died in the forest of Bialowieza in 1919 and in the Caucasus in 1926. Fortunately there were still captive specimens left and from this small population the animals were put out again into natural areas. Currently some thousand wisents live in natural areas, wildlife reserves, breeding reserves and zoos.