Małopolska is a haven of the rarest animals in Poland

Two birds – owls – sitting on a branch.
Małopolska is closest to nature. This is the region with the largest number of national parks in Poland. We have as many as six of them and two world biosphere reserves. In Małopolska, endangered animals – the largest living predators, flying mammals, and delicate butterflies – have at last found refuge. Only a few dozen of them are left, but we can still encounter them. It is not always safe and we must remember that we are the intruders in the world of wildlife. Here are some species described by the ‘Polish Red Book of Animals’, which registers endangered and extinct species that we can see during tourist trips in Małopolska.

Chamois, a living symbol of the Tatra Mountains. Critically endangered

Rupicapra rupicapra tatrica is a symbol of the Tatra National Park.  One of the most endangered species in Poland. There are just over a thousand of them in the Tatra Mountains, and about 300 in the Polish Tatras. This is such a small number that, given their gregarious life, their existence could be threatened by an accidentally introduced epidemic. Chamois live in large flocks called herds, which number from 5 to 15 individuals, foraging most often in the zone at an altitude of 1,700 to 2,200 metres above sea level (masl). They are very agile and clever animals with muscular limbs that allow them to move easily through steep and rocky terrain. The chamois' hooves are adapted to all conditions – both in winter (they sharpen and enable movement in snow and ice) and in summer (they rub against the ground so that the soft centre of the foot can adhere to the rock). The animal weighs up to 30 kilograms. Representatives of both sexes have horns called hooks, which can be used to calculate the age of the chamois. They are extremely skittish, so if you see them on the trail, do not approach them because a frightened flock may fall into the abyss.

It is worth knowing that the protection of chamois, established in 1868 by the Austro-Hungarian authorities at the request of Polish Tatra Mountains lovers, is the world's first parliamentary act of its kind. It was established at the last minute when highland poachers almost wiped out the species. They became the first guards of the chamois.

  • The ‘Polish Red Book of Animals’ lists chamois as an endangered species.

Wallcreepers, the birds that are in love with the mountains of Małopolska. Threatened with extinction

Wallcreepers are one of the smallest and most colourful birds in Poland. In Poland, they occur only in Małopolska, in the Western Tatras and the Pieniny Mountains (no breeding birds have been observed recently in the latter place). There are no more than a few or a dozen pairs of them. Wallcreepers sometimes even fly to foothill towns, e.g., Zakopane. Over the last 25 years, they have been observed on trees along the road to Kuźnice, on the walls of the Tatra National Park headquarters and the Children's Orthopaedic Clinic in Kuźnice.

The body of the wallcreeper – Tichodroma muraria – is grey with a black, whitish tail and dark red wing covers ending with white flight feathers. The species is associated only with the rugged rock wall environment. It isn't easy to imagine a more extreme living environment than the one chosen by the wallcreeper. It builds its nests in crevices in steep rock walls at altitudes of several hundred to 2000 metres. It prefers limestone and dolomite (the Western Tatras are mainly made of them), which are warmer than other rocks. It collects food, namely insects and arachnids, with its long beak on rocky grasslands. Anyone who has visited similar places during a mountain hike knows insects are scarce there. The wallcreeper must feed itself and its offspring during the short mountain summer. When most insectivorous birds move to warmer places for the winter, the wallcreeper stays in the mountains. When the real frost hits, it moves to the lower valleys. Why has it chosen such backbreaking living conditions for itself? Naturalists attribute this to competition. In the mountains, the lower you go, the more crowded it is. More food, but also more beaks to feed. Where wallcreepers live, the competition only peeps in for a while.

  • In the ‘Polish Red Data Book of Animals’ it is listed as threatened with extinction.

Marmots, witnesses of ancient times. Threatened with extinction

In 1868, along with chamois, marmots – Marmota marmota latirostris – were put under protection. This is a subspecies that occurs only in the Tatra Mountains. Due to the fact that they have been inhabiting the Earth since the Quaternary period, they are referred to as witnesses of past eras, and those inhabiting the Tatra Mountains are considered an endemic subspecies. Vigilant and clever animals usually choose places to observe their surroundings freely. In the Tatra Mountains, they live at an altitude of 1,500 to 2,300 masl. You can sometimes see marmots sunning themselves on large boulders, but they can quickly run away to their burrows. It is much easier to hear the distinctive whistle they use to call each other. These animals have the unusual ability to hibernate by falling asleep in their winter burrow and curling up in a ball. Their body temperature drops to 8–10 , thus approaching the ambient temperature. During sleep, oxygen consumption decreases by approximately 30 times, respiratory movements decrease from 16 to 2–3 per minute, and heartbeats decreases from 220 per minute to 30.

In the mid-18th century, Tatra marmots were almost exterminated. They were hunted because of the belief in the healing power of marmot fat. It was even an official cure for visitors to Zakopane. At one point there were no more than 50 of them left. Now their population is slowly rebuilding, but the Tatra National Park foresters are happy with every burrow they notice. Marmots are best observed on warm autumn evenings, when they anxiously forage for precious food to store before winter comes. Due to their extraordinary vigilance, marmots choose places as their refuges from which they can freely observe the surroundings. They typically use large boulders as observation points. Marmots like to bask in the sun and therefore inhabit the southern and southwestern slopes. There are about two hundred of them in the Polish Tatra Mountains.

  • The ‘Polish Red Book of Animals’ list them as highly endangered.

Golden eagles, inhabitants of the wilderness. Threatened with extinction

Birds of prey are recovering from the significant species crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, when it seemed that some species would disappear forever. One of the largest eagles inhabiting Poland is the golden eagle – Aquilachrysaetos – a magnificent bird from the Accipitridae family. It chooses to settle mainly in mountainous areas that are rarely frequented and largely inaccessible to humans, so the Carpathians and inaccessible places in the Tatra Mountains are preferred. The silhouette of the golden eagle is slender, the bird has very long wings and a fairly long tail. The colour of adult birds is brown, speckled with lighter feathers on top. The eagle feeds on mammals of various sizes, birds, reptiles and carrion, but observations of an eagle on the hunt are very rare.

There are probably only six pairs of eagles in the entire Tatra Mountains, including one nest in the Polish Tatra Mountains.

  • In the ‘Polish Red Data Book of Animals’ it is listed as highly endangered.

Bats, a phenomenon of evolution. Threatened with extinction

Where they occur: Kraków, the Kraków-Częstochowa Upland, the Beskid Sądecki and the Beskid Niski, the Gorce Mountains and Beskid Wyspowy, The Tatra Mountains and Podhale. Please note that bats can often be found around all types of buildings, structures, and facilities. along the Wooden Architecture Route.

Bats are one of the most fantastic curiosities of animal development. Flying mammals whose limbs combine prehensile fingers with wings and whose nervous system is equipped with echolocation! Małopolska is a real kingdom of these animals, especially endangered species. They are the only mammals capable of active flight. In the Tatra Mountains and other mountain areas of Małopolska, there are several species of bats that lead a predatory lifestyle. Bats can also be seen around Krakow's churches in the evenings. In Małopolska are, among others:

European bison, giants susceptible to diseases. Threatened with extinction

Bison bonasus is the largest land mammal in Europe. Its body has a massive build up to 350 cm long and weighs up to 1000 kg. They used to live throughout Europe, today only in the Caucasus and... Poland.  They live in herds and prefer to live in mixed forests. The bison's food is herbaceous plants (herbs, grasses, leaves of forest shrubs). Bisons were completely wiped out during World War I. In the early 1920s, Polish scientists  established restoration farms based on bison from zoos, and this species is slowly increasing its numbers, living in the wild, among others, in the Bieszczady Mountains and the Białowieża Forest. The majority of the European bison population lives in Poland. There are approximately 1,500 of them. One of the centres for their maintenance is located in the Niepołomice Forest near Niepołomice in Uroczysko Poszyna. One of the isolated herds lives there, constituting the genetic base for herds living in the wild. In Uroczysko Poszyna, they also live in the wild, although in an enclosed area. You cannot come into contact with them because of the possibility of infecting them with disease. It is worth knowing that attempts were also made to settle bison in the Gorce Mountains. However, this attempt to reintroduce the bison, i.e., to bring them back to areas they had earlier inhabited, was unsuccessful.

  • The ‘Polish Red Book of Animals’ list them as highly endangered.

European wildcats, cats with green eyes. Threatened with extinction

Wildcats  – Felis silvestris – can be found in our country only in Małopolska and Podkarpacie, in large forest complexes and in foothill areas. It looks like a very tall cat and has a brown coat and green eyes. There are no more than 200 of them. It is a quite timid and very alert animal, so spotting a wildcat is very difficult. They choose a solitary life and inhabit deciduous and mixed forests. Wildcats feed mainly on rodents – mice and voles – and sometimes they hunt fish.

  • The ‘Polish Red Book of Animals’ list them as highly endangered.

Apollo, the butterfly that came back from the brink of extinction. Extremely endangered

Parnassius apollo, a species of butterfly from the swallowtail butterfly family, is one of the largest specimens of diurnal butterflies in Poland. The wingspan reaches 9 cm, and the white wings are decorated with numerous black and red spots. The butterfly feeds on sedum and houseleek, and one of its main characteristics is the fact that it does not leave pollen on the fingers, which is where its name comes from. Since the mid-20th century, scientists have observed the drastic disappearance of these butterflies, which most often feed on grazed and mowed pastures, in the Tatra Mountains. Poorly understood nature protection led to the cessation of use of the pastures and their overgrowing, and the Apollo butterfly lost its natural habitat. And so it disappeared from the Chochołowska Valley and the Kościeliska Valley , and at the beginning of the 21st century this species was thought to have become extinct in the Tatra Mountains, but for several years now the butterfly has been reappearing. Reintroducing the butterfly, i.e., bringing them back to the valley with the help of humans, was carried out in the Pieniny Mountains. The action was not entirely successful and only a few individuals can be found here.

  • The ‘Polish Red Book’ lists the animals as extremely endangered.

Brown bears, the largest predators of our times! On the verge of being endangered

Only about a hundred bears are left in Poland. They are the largest predators of our times, and meeting them is always dangerous, including for the bears. The most considerable threat to these dying out animals is synanthropisation, i.e., coexistence with humans. A synanthropised bear is an individual that has lost its natural fear of humans. It does not avoid it and uses areas developed by people as places to obtain food. It feeds along roads, tourist trails and garbage cans.

(Ursus arctos) reaches a weight of 350 kilograms. Although the bear's massive build makes the bear seem clumsy and heavy, they can run, jump and climb rocks very quickly. A bear's best senses are smell and hearing, while its vision is slightly weaker. Thanks to its sense of smell, it searches avalanches and obtains food in spring, before fresh plant shoots, blueberries and raspberries appear. Bears inhabit huge areas – from 30 to 200 square kilometres – and in the wild, bears migrate very frequently – they are capable of covering several dozen kilometres a day. In the Tatra Mountains, bears and people's paths cross too often. An example of this is the fate of Magda the Bear. In the second half of the 1980s, a young female, Magda, learned to use leftovers abandoned by humans. The manager of one of the Tatra mountain shelters had probably contributed to this, as he lured bears by pouring kitchen slop to make his shelter more attractive. Magda took advantage of this, dragging her two sons behind her. Bears appeared among people demanding food. They were losing their wildness. They posed a threat to their species and the tourists. They knocked on houses, tore out doors, and demolished rooms. They showed up at all hours. At night, the Tatra National Park guards patrolled around the places visited by Magda the Bear and they threw firecrackers and lit flares whenever she appeared. The action partially brought results. They managed to discourage the first two youngsters whom Magda trained to pick through garbage bins. The animals resumed their natural ‘wild’ behaviour and returned to much more remote areas. However, Magda gave birth to three more cubs and passed on her unnatural experiences to them. The situation was starting to get dangerous. There was no night when bears did not destroy the shelter in Roztoka, the forester's lodge near Wanta, or the buildings near Palenica Białczańska and Łysa Polana. They started taking off tourists' backpacks. They weren't afraid of anything. This could have ended in a deadly drama. Had the management decided to shoot the animals, it would also have been a tragedy. Thus, it was decided to catch them and give them to the zoo. The large operation to catch four bears was not easy and took several weeks. They were taken to the zoo in Wrocław. First, two youngsters escaped, but after wandering around the city for a while, they were caught, and then Magda ran away from the enclosure. Unexpectedly, she was found among the visitors. The danger of hurting someone was great. The animal was sedated, but the dose of sedative was too high. Resuscitation took over an hour, but Magda could not be saved. The bear died in 1988.

Let's remember this when we want to leave food for the bear on a mountain trail. Bears roam over almost all the area of the Tatra National Park. They can be found around Morskie Oko on the way to this lake and in the Western Tatras. Often they even go down to Zakopane. They will appear around Mt Babia Góra and the Beskid Żywiecki. Bears were spotted near Andrychów and Myślenice. Recently a bear was roaming around the Gorce National Park. They are most often seen in spring, when, awakened after their winter hibernation, the hungry animals are frantically searching for food. When we meet a bear, there is one rule – you must refrain from feeding or approaching it.

Even though it is not very common in Poland, its population is huge throughout the Carpathians. There are about 8,000 bears in Romania alone.

Eagle owls, the largest owls in the world. Close to being endangered

Bubo bubo – a bird from the tawny owl family, is the largest owl in the world. It most often settles in mountain areas in old deciduous and coniferous stands, while in the lowlands, it chooses areas near meadows and swamps. The bird is mainly nocturnal, and sometimes its characteristic call can be heard at dusk. The eagle owl is a fairly large bird (up to 70 centimetres tall), buff and brown in colour, with long ears and orange eyes. Its diet consists of a variety of animal foods, mainly medium-sized mammals and birds. The eagle owl is an extraordinary bird as it is not afraid of practically anything. It can take nests from other predators by killing them and even build a nest on the ground, defending it against wolves and boars. It has stereoscopic eyesight, and at night, when it most often hunts, it precisely assesses distance and range. The pressure of its claws can reach up to two tons. Paired eagle owls remain faithful to each other until the end of their lives.

Eagle owls in Małopolska occur mainly in the areas of National Parks: Ojców, Gorczański, Tatra, Pieniński, and Babiogórski. There are no more than 250 of them left in Poland.

  • The ‘Polish Red Data Book of Animals’ lists them as near-threatened.

Wolves, predators, are still dangerous. Close to endangerment

Where they occur: The Tatra Mountainsthe Beskid Sądecki and the Beskid Niski and the Gorce Mountains and Beskid Wyspowy.

Canis lupus is a predatory mammal that is the direct ancestor of the dog. Long limbs enable it to run long distances and fast. Wolves live in packs consisting of 5 to 9 individuals; interestingly, most often, it is the dominant pair and their offspring. Family groups usually inhabit a territory with an average area of up to 250 km2 in the lowlands and about 150 km2 in the mountains. Wolves live in forests and steppes in Europe and Asia. There are also about 2–2.5 thousand wolves living in Poland. They are most often found in forest complexes in central and Western Poland: the Kampinos Forest, the Bolimowska Forest, the Spała Forests, and the Świętokrzyska Forest. They also occur in Małopolska. They are usually characterised by a fawn-beige colouring, with a brownish-black back and a heavily reddish back of the ears and head. Wolves are carnivorous and their primary food is wild ungulates. Wolves are very active, they have been observed even in the vicinity of Chrzanów and Olkusz, and they are a permanent feature in the mountain regions of Małopolska. Every year, they prey on several dozen sheep in the Podhale region. In 2021, they were often observed in the Beskid Wyspowy Mountains. Although wolves do not attack people, it is better to avoid contact with them.

  • The ’Polish Red Data Book of Animals’ lists them as near-threatened.



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