The bison is Europe’s heaviest land mammal, weighing up to 800kg

Even teetotal travellers to Poland are likely to stumble across Zubrowka vodka. It comes in a bottle with a distinctive label featuring a bison, zubr, and a blade of buffalo grass, supposedly urinated on by one of these magnificent creatures. But few visitors bold enough to try this national firewater will be aware of the precarious existence of the European bison, or realise that they can actually see them in the wild.

Conserving bison is not just about protecting a national symbol of Poland; it is linked to the survival of Europe’s last primeval forest, the 8,000-year-old Bialowieza, which straddles the border with Belarus. Around 16% of the Polish part of the forest is a national park and home to about 470 of the animals.

The bison is Europe’s heaviest land mammal, weighing up to 800kg. They are naturally shy – and experts want to keep it that way – but it is possible to see them.

Tourists can visit the protected primeval area of the national park, a Unesco world heritage site, though only if they book a guided tour. It’s worth a trip: the forest teems with life – wolves, elks, stags, lynx and a great variety of birds – and it’s a haunting experience to wander among its ancient trees. I have seen them there myself, and it’s an incredible experience if you are lucky.

The easiest place to spot them should be the hay meadows on which they feed, on the fringes of the forest, which you can visit under your own steam. Conservation efforts (part-funded by the EU) to expand the area the bison live in and bring them out on to the hay meadows to feed in autumn/winter (and not rely on artificial feeding) are increasing opportunities to see them, though in summer they tend to stick to the forest. An easier solution is to visit the large semi-natural enclosure, or „show reserve” near the village.

Ironically, the primeval forest survives because of hunting. Polish kings and Russian tsars were fond of hunting bison and maintained a small population. But during the first world war, bison were hunted to near extinction for food by German soldiers and locals. In 1929 a captive-breeding programme started, and in 1952 the animal was reintroduced to the forest.