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Where can I see Europe’s largest animal?

Eastern Poland’s Bialowieza Forest is home to the world’s largest population of European bison – and that’s just for starters

  • Where can I see  Europe’s largest animal?
  • Where can I see  Europe’s largest animal?
  • Where can I see  Europe’s largest animal?

Text by Malcolm Smith

The European bison is one of nature’s good news stories. These great beasts – cousins of the American buffalo, which can weigh up to 1,000kg – were once all but extinct, but now their population is just about stable.

Nearly 1,000 bison roam the vast Bialowieza Forest – which stretches across Poland’s eastern border into Belarus – a remarkable fact given that in 1919 there were none left in the wild, having been hunted for their meat and leather. But a few survived in zoos and far-sighted conservationists began to breed them, eventually releasing them here. I’ve come to see Europe’s largest population for a book I’m writing about species rescued from the brink of extinction.

These large, lumbering beasts are thrilling to see in the wild, but they’re the icing on the cake in Europe’s biggest surviving primeval forest, which draws up to 150,000 visitors a year to its well-marked walking trails, cycle paths, and roads for cars and pony traps.

But walking is the best way to appreciate its wildness. You’ll hear the staccato vibrations of tree-drumming woodpeckers, which could be any one of Europe’s nine species; you’ll see frogs and toads hopping on the forest bed when it’s damp; or beavers and otters swimming silently in the forest streams. In the evenings, you might hear the whistle of a thrush-sized pygmy owl, Europe’s tiniest, echoing from the top of a towering spruce.

It’s all watched over by enormous oaks, spruce, hornbeams and ash that rise up to 40m. There’s a scatter of massive tree trunks on the forest floor, fallen giants decomposing courtesy of a plethora of wood-boring beetles and a host of fungi – some cauliflower lookalikes, others resembling human fingers. The trunks are the powerhouses of the forest, returning timber nutrients to the soil.

There are red deer and wild boar roaming free here, but the Forest Emperor – as the bison is called – is the star. You should be able to see them throughout the year – but if that fails, you can get up close with a small group at the Bialowieza National Park’s Bison Show Reserve.

The Bialowieza Forest is a three-hour drive from Warsaw. Plentiful accommodation is available at Bialowieza village, though you need a guide to explore protected areas.

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Europe's largest animals

On land

European bison
Europe’s heaviest land mammal is now mainly forest dwelling after it was reintroduced to the wild from near extinction. They can grow up to 3.5m long and have been known to live up to 30 years in captivity.

At Sea

Blue whale
The blue whale is the heaviest animal known to have existed. They were hunted close to extinction until international protection arrived in 1966. They live for up to 90 years in all the world’s oceans.

In the air

Great bustard
The heaviest flying bird in the world is listed as a vulnerable species. Sixty per cent of its population can be found in Spain and Portugal; there’s also a sizeable number in Asia and Hungary, where it’s the national bird.


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