Almost 400 years ago in the forests of central Poland an ancient creature disappeared forever from the face of the earth. The aurochs (Polish: tur) was the ancestor of all modern European cattle breeds-Jersey, Guernsey, Hereford, Angus. This was the legendary bull painted by the Neanderthals on their cave walls. At one time the aurochs lived in most of Europe and Central Asia and in parts of India and North Africa.
By the time of Christ, the aurochs was only present in Central and Eastern Europe, from present day France through Russia. Hunting and human encroachment kept putting pressure on the animal, and its range got smaller, until by 1300 it existed only in Poland, Lithuania and East Prussia. By the mid-1400s it was found only in the heavily forested Mazowsze region of Poland.
From the beginning of the Polish state in 966, the hunting of large game was reserved for the king, princes and dukes. This hunting privilege was also extended to other nobles, but almost always excluded the right to take down an aurochs. Indeed, as the animal became more scarce, even the king refused to kill this magnificent animal.
By 1500 it could be found only in the Jaktorowski forest between Jaktorów, Radziejówka and Wiskitka. The villagers of Jaktorów, 20 miles southwest of Warsaw, were charged by the king with caring for and protecting the aurochs, and in return they were exempt from taxes. Every few years the king sent royal inspectors to check on the welfare of the animals and to take an official count. In 1564 only 38 of them were counted, appearing weak and skinny. When asked why they were so thin, the villagers replied that it was because domestic animals roamed the forests and fields, competing for food with the aurochs. It then became illegal to graze domesticated herds in the fields.
By 1599 only 24 remained. In 1602 an audit revealed only four healthy aurochs left, but it stated that there were many more sick ones suffering from an illness spread from "other cows." In 1620 only one female remained, and in 1630 the king's inspector reported that she had died three years earlier. A few of them reportedly were alive in captivity in the early 1600s, but it is not known if any outlived those in the wild.
In the end the aurochs disappeared due to centuries of over-hunting, loss of habitat, and competition for food from domestic farm animals. Today in the village of Jaktorów stands a monument to the last aurochs. The forest is mostly gone. That the animal survived as long as it did is a testament to the conservation and land management works of the kings of Poland, an excellent early example of efforts to save an endangered species.
In the early 20th century the Heck brothers of Germany "recreated" two strains of aurochs by a process called reverse selection, and any living animal called aurochs today is a result of their work. While some say there is a resemblance to the extinct animal, others claim its features are significantly different, especially its size and the shape of its horns.
Eyewitness Travel Guide to Poland by Teresa Czerniewics-Umer, Malgorzata Omilanowska, Jerzy S. Majewski, DK Travel Writers