Białowieża National Park
The Białowieża National Park (Belarusian: Belawezhskaja Puschtscha, Polish: Puszcza Białowieska) is the largest remnant of a lowland primeval forest that covered the entire continent of Europe in prehistoric times. In the course of time the primeval forest was gradually cut down, leaving an untouched remnant on the territory of Belarus and Poland, between which today the state border of both countries runs. On both sides of the border the forest has the legal status of a national park. The Belavezhskaya Pushcha is considered to be the vegetation zone of a “Sarmatian mixed forest”. On the territory of the national park also lies the main European watershed between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea.
Within the framework of the UNESCO programme “Man and the Biosphere (MAB programme)”, the Belowezha Biosphere Reserve was established in 1976 in the Polish part. The corresponding biosphere reserve on the Belarusian side followed in 1993 with a size of over 216,300 hectares. The entire biosphere reserve consists of a core zone, a buffer zone and a transition zone.
In 1976, the Bialowezhski National Park (Polish: Białowieski Park Narodowy) was added to the World Heritage List by a UNESCO decision. In 1992 the territory was extended by the state national park Belawezhskaja Pushcha (Belarus) and was given the name Belovezhskaya Pushcha / Bialowieza Forest.
In 2014 the cross-border territory of the World Heritage Site with a total area of 141,885 hectares and a buffer zone of 166,708 hectares was established as “Białowieża Forest, Belarus, Poland”.
In order to preserve the unique nature of the Belovezha Forest, it was divided into four zones with different degrees of protection, a strict protection zone, a zone of limited use, a recreational zone and an economic zone.
The Belovezhskaya Pushcha is one of the most valuable protected areas in Belarus and the last preserved deep virgin forest in Europe.
The national park is situated on flat relief. Among the largest rivers are the Narew, Narevka, Rudavka, Lesnaya and others. There are no natural lakes on the territory, but there are ten artificial lakes. The largest of them, Ljadskoe and Chmelewskoe, are situated in the southern part of the Park, in the middle of fens.
The soil of the primeval forest is mainly characterized by an acidic, nutrient-poor environment. The climate and soil conditions promote the growth of a wide range of vegetation with more than 890 plant species. 86% of the territory is covered by forest, predominantly pine forests, which cover almost 60% of the forested territory.
The average age of trees is 81 years, but some trees are already between 250 and 350 years old. There are more than a thousand so-called giant trees registered in the area. These include oaks with an age between 400 and 600 years, ashes and pines between 250 and 350 years, and spruces between 200 and 250 years. The spruce is the tree species that grows highest, sometimes reaching a height of up to 50 meters. Alder forests grow in marshy river valleys and fens. They cover about 15% of the forested territory. The birch forests (just under 10%) are mainly found in transitional bogs, as well as near maple, grayling and fir.
The Belowezha Forest with its rich flora and fauna is unique in Europe. Among other things, 958 species of vascular spore and vascular seed plants, 260 species of moss, 290 species of lichens and 570 species of fungi thrive here.
The local fauna includes 59 species of mammals and 227 species of birds, 7 species of reptiles and 11 species of amphibians, 24 species of fish and over 11,000 species of invertebrates. The Belarusian part of the National Park is home to the world’s largest population of bisons, also called European bison (Bison bonasus). Among the big herbivores you can meet mainly the red deer (Cervus elaphus), the roe deer (Capreolus) and the wild boar (Sus scrofa). Among the predators, the wolf (Canis lupus), the fox (Vulpes vulpes), the lynx (Lynx), the European badger (Meles meles), the pine marten or noble marten (Martes martes) and the otter (Lutra lutra) are particularly noteworthy.
Among the rare animal species are the aforementioned bison, the lynx and the European badger. There are numerous rare birds such as the white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), the snake eagle (Circaetus gallicus), the black stork (Ciconia nigra), the grey crane (Grus grus), the lesser spotted eagle (Aquila pomarina) and the golden eagle (Aquila clanga). Among the bird species are rare owl species such as the eagle owl (Bubo bubo), the bearded owl (Strix nebulosa) and the Ural or Ural owl (Strix uralensis), as well as the Eurasian Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium passerinum).
Other important representatives of the diverse bird species are the white-backed woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos), the three-toed woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus), the European Roller or Almond Crow (Coracias garrulus), the Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola) and others.
As for the flora, the splendid fir (Abies magnifica), the sessile oak (Quercus petraea), the Turk’s-band (Lilium martagon), the large star-shaped umbel (Astrantia major), and the goblet (Adenophora liliifolia) are on the Red List of endangered species of the Republic of Belarus.
The history of the primeval forest
The forests of the Belavezhskaja Putscha nature reserve are the oldest in Europe. These forests were already mentioned in 983 in one of the first chronicles ever, the Hypatius Chronicle. From the 12th century it is said that the Grand Duke of Kiev, Vladimir II, called Monomakh, hunted aurochs, bisons and deer there. In the 13th century the territory of the primeval forest came into the possession of the Lithuanian Grand Prince and later passed to the Polish kings. In 1409 the Polish king Jogaila forbade hunting in his forests. Only the king himself and members of his family were allowed to hunt large animals. Thus the Belowezha Forest was reserved for the nobility. But the forest was also a supplier of meat for the king’s army and a source of raw materials for weapons. The increased exploitation by the nobility caused great damage to the forest.
In the 17th and 18th centuries the character of hunting changed, it became a luxurious pastime for the nobility. A large hunting lodge was built on the bank of the Nerevka River for the hunting festivals of kings. For more comfortable hunting, a large area of forest was fenced in, where the king’s hunters brought large game animals.
At the time when the Belovezha Forest belonged to the Russian Empire, hunting was allowed in the Pushcha, but bisons were not allowed to be shot.
Since 1802 there was a regular count of the heavily decimated bison population. In 1864 deer were imported from Germany, as they had been completely exterminated in the area. This can be seen as one of the first state conservation measures. In the times of the Russian Empire the official owner of the forest was the tsar family. From 1889 to 1894, an imperial hunting palace was built here, for which a special railway line was established to make it easier for the tsars to travel to the forest.
During the First World War German troops occupied the territory of the forest and began to cut massive amounts of wood. In two and a half years, 4.5 million solid cubic metres of timber were exported to Germany. The acts of war and the occupation also caused immense damage to the animal world. In 1919, bisons and fallow deer were finally exterminated, the number of deer and wild boars was greatly reduced. Since 1920 the Belowezha Forest belonged to Poland, but its exploitation continued. In 1935, almost a fifth of the forest had been cut down.
Since 1939 the Belovezha Forest belonged to the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) and became a national park. After the Second World War, Poland and the BSSR divided the territory of the forest among themselves. On the Polish part, the historical centre of the forest, Belowezha, remained with the breeding of bisons. On Belarusian territory hardly any structures for further care and preservation of the park had been preserved. However, the Polish colleagues gave the neighbours five bisons, which became the progenitors of the Belarusian bison population.
In 1957 the Belovezhskaya Forest was granted the status of a protected hunting area, in 1991 the area was reorganized in the form of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha State National Park.
Today the national park is one of the most visited sights in Belarus. Tourists can discover the forest partly by bike but mainly on foot. In the local natural history museum you can learn more about the history of the forest and its diverse animals and plants.
Near the museum there are large enclosures with wild animals. There you can see the lynx, fox, deer, red deer, moose, bear, wild boar and of course the bison.
Also today the park needs protection and attention again. There was an outcry two years ago when the Polish government announced that the park would be used commercially again and wood would be cut. Fortunately, this could be prevented until now.