I met Conrad back in 1996. He was the most impressive looking bison I had ever seen, and he rivals every other one I’ve seen since. Conrad spent nearly 20 years living at the Assinboine Park Zoo, until his death yesterday July 3, 2009.
My favourite memory of Conrad was when he would decide to wander over to the pond (beside the visitor path) and quietly stand just out of reach of the public, seemingly enjoying their company. At more than 2000 lbs, Conrad easily caught your attention and his absence in the herd will be obvious.
European bison, a.k.a Wisent, were hunted for decades but eventually went extinct in the wild thanks to Russian government sanctioned poaching and WWI. The last truly wild wisent was killed by a poacher in 1921. Thankfully, conservationists immediately started a captive breeding program using zoo animals. There are currently 200 European bison breeding centres found in 27 countries worldwide. Wisent numbers eventually increased enough to be released back into the wild. At the present time, there are no more than 3000 European bison in the wild – the vast majority of which are found in four reserves in Poland, the largest of which is in the Bialowieska Forest.
The Assiniboine Park Zoo also houses plains bison, another species with a troubled past. Although wisent are smaller in overall size, they have a thickset body shape with a short neck and a pronounced shoulder hump.