Fallen tree in the Białowieża Forest
|Location||Podlaskie Voivodeship, Poland
Hrodna and Brest Voblasts, Belarus
|Nearest city||Hajnówka, Poland|
|Area||3,085.8 km2 (1,191.4 sq mi)|
|Established||11 August 1932|
|Governing body||Ministries of the Environment of Belarus and Poland|
|UNESCO World Heritage Site
Białowieża Forest, Belarus, Poland
|Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List|
European bison in its natural habitat
|Inscription||1979 (3rd Session)|
Białowieża Forest (Belarusian: Белавежская пушча, Biełaviežskaja Pušča; Polish: Puszcza Białowieska Polish pronunciation: [ˈpuʂt͡ʂa ˌbʲawɔˈvʲɛska] ( listen); Russian: Беловежская пуща, Belovezhskaya Pushcha) is one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primeval forest that once stretched across the European Plain. The forest is home to 800 European bison, Europe's heaviest land animal. UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB) designated the Polish Biosphere Reserve Bialowieza in 1976 and the Belarusian Biosphere Reserve Belovezhskaya Puschcha in 1993. In 2015, the Belarusian Biosphere Reserve occupied the area of 216,200 ha (2,162 km2; 835 sq mi), subdivided into transition, buffer and core zones. The forest has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an EU Natura 2000 Special Area of Conservation. The World Heritage Committee by its decision of June 2014 approved the extension of the UNESCO World Heritage site “Belovezhskaya Pushcha/Białowieża Forest, Belarus, Poland”, which became “Białowieża Forest, Belarus, Poland”. It straddles the border between Poland (Podlaskie Voivodeship) and Belarus (Brest Voblast and Hrodna Voblast), and is 70 kilometres (43 miles) north of Brest, Belarus and 62 kilometres (39 miles) southeast of Białystok, Poland. The Białowieża Forest World Heritage site covers a total area of 141,885 ha (1,418.85 km2; 547.82 sq mi). Since the border between the two countries runs through the forest, there is a border crossing available for hikers and cyclists.
The Belarusian name is Biełaviežskaja pušča (Белавежская пушча), although both the Belarusian authorities and UNESCO use the original Russian name Belovezhskaya pushcha (Беловежская пуща) from before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Białowieża National Park, Poland
On the Polish side, part of the Białowieża Forest is protected as the Białowieża National Park (Polish: Białowieski Park Narodowy), with an area of about 105 km2 (41 sq mi). There is also the Białowieża Glade (Polish: Polana Białowieska), with a complex of buildings once owned by the tsars of Russia during the Partitions of Poland. At present, a hotel and restaurant with a car park is located there. Guided tours into the strictly protected areas of the park can be arranged on foot, bike or by horse-drawn carriage. Approximately 120,000–150,000 tourists visit the Polish part of the forest annually (about 10,000 of them are from other countries). Among the attractions are birdwatching with local ornithologists, the chance to observe rare birds, pygmy owl observations, watching bison in their natural environment, and sledge as well as carriage rides, with a bonfire. Expert nature guides can also be found in the nearby urban centres. Tours are possible all year round. The popular village of Białowieża lies within the forest. Białowieża means "the white tower" in Old Polish, but also "village on swamp" or "village of free people".
Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, Belarus
On the Belarusian side, the forest is protected as the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park with an area of 1,771 km2 (684 sq mi). The core, strictly protected, area covers 157 km2 (61 sq mi), the buffer zone 714 km2 (276 sq mi), and the transition zone 900 km2 (350 sq mi); the National Park and World Heritage Site comprises 876 km2 (338 sq mi). The Belovezhskaya pushcha headquarters at Kamyanyuki include laboratory facilities and a zoo where European bison (reintroduced into the park in 1929), konik (a semi-wild horse), wild boar, Eurasian elk and other indigenous animals may be viewed in enclosures of their natural habitat. A new attraction there is a New Year's museum with Ded Moroz (the East Slavic counterpart of Father Christmas).
The entire area of northeastern Europe was originally covered by ancient woodland similar to that of the Białowieża Forest. Until about the 14th century, travel through the woodland was limited to river routes; roads and bridges appeared much later. Limited hunting rights were granted throughout the forest in the 14th century. In the 15th century the forest became a property of King Vladislaus II. A wooden manor in Białowieża became his refuge during a plague pandemic in 1426. The first recorded piece of legislation on the protection of the forest dates to 1538, when a document issued by King Sigismund I instituted the death penalty for poaching a bison. The King also built a new wooden hunting manor in a village of Białowieża, which became the namesake for the whole complex. Since Białowieża means the "white tower", the corresponding Puszcza Białowieska translates as the "forest of the white tower". The Tower of Kamyanyets on the Belarusian side, built of red brick, is also referred to as the White Tower (Belaya Vezha) even though it was never white, perhaps taking the name from the pushcha.
The forest was declared a hunting reserve in 1541 to protect bison. In 1557, the forest charter was issued, under which a special board was established to examine forest usage. In 1639, King Vladislaus IV issued the "Białowieża royal forest decree" (Ordynacja Puszczy J.K. Mości leśnictwa Białowieskiego). The document freed all peasants living in the forest in exchange for their service as osocznicy, or royal foresters. They were also freed of taxes in exchange for taking care of the forest. The forest was divided onto 12 triangular areas (straże) with a centre in Białowieża.
Until the reign of King John II Casimir, the forest was mostly unpopulated. However, in the late 17th century, several small villages were established for development of local iron-ore deposits and tar production. The villages were populated with settlers from Masovia and Podlaskie and many of them still exist.
After the Partitions of Poland, Tsar Paul I turned all the foresters into serfs and handed them over to various Russian aristocrats and generals along with the parts of forest where they lived. Also, a large number of hunters were able to enter the forest, as all protection was abolished. Following this, the number of bison fell from more than 500 to fewer than 200 in 15 years. However, in 1801, Tsar Alexander I reintroduced the reserve and hired a small number of peasants to protect the animals, and by the 1830s there were 700 bison. However, most of the foresters (500 out of 502) took part in the November Uprising of 1830–31, and their posts were abolished, leading to a breakdown of protection.
Tsar Alexander II visited the forest in 1860 and decided to re-establish the protection of bison. Following his orders, locals killed all predators: wolves, bears and lynx. Between 1888 and 1917, the Russian tsars owned all of primaeval forest, which became the royal hunting reserve. The tsars sent bison as gifts to various European capitals, while at the same time populating the forest with deer, moose and other animals imported from around the empire. The last major tsarist hunt took place in 1912.
20th century wartime damages and restoration
During World War I the forest suffered heavy losses. The German army seized the area in August 1915 and started to hunt the animals. During three years of German occupation, 200 kilometres (124 miles) of railway tracks were laid in the forest to support the local industry. Three lumber mills were built, in Hajnówka, Białowieża and Gródek. Up to 25 September 1915, at least 200 bison were killed, and an order was issued forbidding hunting in the reserve. However, German soldiers, poachers and Soviet marauders continued the slaughter until February 1919 when the area was captured by the Polish army. The last bison had been killed just a month earlier. Thousands of deer and wild boar had also been shot.
After the Polish–Soviet War in 1921, the core of Puszcza Białowieska was declared a National Reserve. In 1923, Professor Józef Paczoski, a pioneer of the science of phytosociology, became a scientific manager of the forest reserves in the Białowieża Forest. He carried out detailed studies of the structure of forest vegetation there.
In 1923 it was known that only 54 bison survived in zoos all around the world, none of them in Poland. In 1929, a small herd of four was bought by the Polish state from various zoos and from the Western Caucasus (where the bison was to become extinct just a few years; these animals were of the slightly different Caucasian subspecies[which?]). Most of the forest was declared a national park in 1932.
The reintroduction proved successful, and in 1939 there were 16 bison in Białowieża National Park. Two of them, from the zoo in Pszczyna, were descendants of a pair from the forest given to the Duke of Pszczyna by Tsar Alexander II in 1865.
In 1939 the local inhabitants of Polish ethnicity were deported to remote areas of the Soviet Union and replaced by Soviet forest workers. In 1941 the forest was occupied by Germans and the Soviet inhabitants were also expelled. Hermann Göring planned to create the largest hunting reserve in the world there. After July 1941 the forest became a refuge for both Polish and Soviet partisans and German authorities organised mass executions. A few graves of people who were killed by the Gestapo can still be seen in the forest. In July 1944 the area was invaded by the Red Army. Withdrawing Wehrmacht troops demolished the historic Białowieża hunting manor.
After the war, part of the forest was divided between Poland and the Belarusian SSR of the Soviet Union. The Soviet part was put under public administration while Poland reopened the Białowieża National Park in 1947.
Belovezhskaya Pushcha was protected under Decision No. 657 of the Council of People's Commissars of the Soviet Union, 9 October 1944; Order No. 2252-P of the USSR Council of Ministers, 9 August 1957; and Decree No. 352 of the Byelorussian SSR Council of Ministers, 16 September 1991.
The forest contains a number of large, ancient pedunculate oaks (Quercus robur), some of which are individually named. Trunk circumferences are measured at breast height, 130 cm (51 in) above the ground.
- Great Mamamuszi. Circumference 690 cm (270 in) (2005), height 34 m (112 ft). One of the thickest oaks in the forest, with a beautiful column-like trunk. The tree's name stems from Molière's The Bourgeois Gentleman, in which the main protagonist (Mr Jourdain) was appointed the Mamamouchi by a Turkish ambassador. Since 1989 the tree's circumference grew by 10 cm (3.9 in). Of all the oaks in Belovezhskaya pushcha with a circumference above 600 cm (240 in), it is in the best condition.
- The King of Nieznanowo. Circumference 620 cm (240 in), height 38 m (125 ft). This tree has one of the most columnar trunks among the oaks in Belovezhskaya pushcha, interestingly set in the ground. The first branches arise at the height of 18 m. It has been gradually dying since 1998. As of 2005, only two small branches still have leaves. Since the mid-1960s its trunk circumference has grown by about 45 cm (18 in).
- Emperor of the South. Circumference 610 cm (240 in), height 40 m (130 ft). The tree shows no clear signs of dying.
- Emperor of the North. Circumference 605 cm (238 in), height 37 m (121 ft). The tree has a very regular trunk and shows no clear signs of dying.
- Southern Cross. Circumference 630 cm (250 in), height 36 m (118 ft). At the base of the trunk it has a considerable lesion in the bark on the eastern side. From the mid-1960s its circumference has grown by 65 cm (26 in). The name stems from the shape of its crown, whose main branches evoke a cross (see photo of the crown).
- The Guardian of Zwierzyniec. Circumference 658 cm (259 in), height 37 m (121 ft). This is one of the thickest oaks in the forest. The tree is largely bent down westwards, which most probably has contributed to the large circumference of the trunk at its base. All the branches are live, indicating that the tree is in good condition.
- Barrel Oak. Circumference 740 cm (290 in), height over 30 m (98 ft). This tree is named for its barrel-shaped trunk, and is the oak which reaches the greatest trunk circumference among the Białowieża oaks. The tree is dead and largely devoid of bark, and is estimated to be around 450 years old.
- Dominator Oak. Circumference 680 cm (270 in), height over 36 m (118 ft). One of the thickest oaks of the Belovezhskaya pushcha, the tree has been dead since 1992 and its trunk is now largely devoid of bark. For many years it dominated the Belovezhskaya pushcha as far as size is concerned. Its age is estimated at 450 years.
- The Jagiełło Oak. Circumference (when growing) 550 cm (220 in), height 39 m (128 ft). It blew down in 1974, but is probably the most famous of the trees in the forest. It is said that King Władysław II Jagiełło rested beneath it before the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, although in fact the tree is believed to have been only 450 years old when it blew down.
- Tsar Oak (Polish) (Polish: Dąb Car) of Poland. Circumference 640 cm (250 in), height 41 m (135 ft). The tree's volume has been estimated at 75 m3 (2,600 cu ft). It died in 1984, and for over 20 years it has been standing dead on the edge of the valley of Leśna Prawa river. Today the trunk is totally devoid of bark and some of the branches have broken off and lie at the base of the trunk.
- Patriarch Oak (Russian: Патриарх-Дуб). One of the oldest oaks in the Belarusian National Park, standing 31m tall, having a diameter in excess of 2m, and being over 550 years of age. It stands 1 kilometre (1 mile) from the estate of Ded Moroz.
Polish environmentalists say that logging is threatening the flora and fauna in the forest, including species of rare birds. Poland's state forestry board is saying that it is being done for protection and for ecological reasons. Since 2012, the amount of wood that can be extracted by foresters annually was reduced from about 120,000 m3 (4,237,760 cu ft) to just 48,500 m3 (1,712,761 cu ft) and most of it is sold locally, mainly as firewood.
The forest is the subject of a Russian ballad Belovezhskaya Pushcha, composed in 1975 by Aleksandra Pakhmutova, with lyrics by Nikolai Dobronravov, performed by Belarusian folk band Pesniary. It is also mentioned throughout Alan Weisman's environmental book The World Without Us (2007), which imagines what Earth would be like without people by looking at actual places that have been abandoned or left alone, and is featured as the backdrop for the 2008 World War II film Defiance, a true story about over 1000 people who retreat there to hide from the Nazis.
- Tourism in Poland
- List of national parks of Poland
- List of national parks of Belarus
- List of old growth forests
- Virgin Komi Forests, the largest forest in Europe
- Western Caucasus, the largest bison (wisent) habitat
- Perućica, another primeval forest in Europe (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
- "Białowieża Forest, Belarus, Poland" at the UNESCO official webpage. Retrieved May 27, 2015.
- Baczynska, Gabriela (28 September 2008). "FEATURE-Climate change clouds fate of ancient Polish woods". Reuters. Retrieved 28 September 2008.
- "Biosphere Reserve Information - BIALOWIEZA". Retrieved 2015-05-23.
- "Biosphere Reserve Information - BELOVEZHSKAYA PUSCHCHA". Retrieved 2015-05-23.
- The structure of the Biosphere Reserve Belovezhskaya Pushcha.
- "21 World Heritage Sites you have probably never heard of". Daily Telegraph.
- Decision 38 COM 8B.12 of the World Heritage Committee
- "Białowieża Forest, Belarus, Poland". UNESCO/WHC website. Retrieved 27 May 2015.
- Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park – Official Website of the Republic of Belarus.
- Belovezhskaya pushcha – Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
- Information Centre + Tourist & Guide Service
- Arek Szymura Pygmy Owl Nature Tours
- Zdzisław Pucek, European Bison (Bison Bonasus): Current State of the Species. Council of Europe, 2004. ISBN 9287155496.
- The story of the White Tower of Kamyanyets. Belavezhskaya Pushcha. (Russian).
- Paczoski J. 1928. La végétation de la Foret de Białowieża (French: Vegetation of Białowieża Forest). Varsovie.
- Paczoski J. 1928. Biologiczna struktura lasu (Polish: The Biological Structure of Forest). Sylwan 3:193-221.
- Paczoski J. 1930. Lasy Białowieży (Polish: The Forests of Białowieża). Monografje Naukowe 1. Warszawa: Państwowa Rada Ochrony Przyrody.
- (Russian)  the website of the National park (accessed 14 May 2015)
- "Logging a threat to Europe's last primeval forest: activists". AFP (Google Search). August 2010. Retrieved 11 August 2010.
- "Belovezhskaya Pushcha", from the official website of Aleksandra Pakhmutova, with copyrighted lyrics and a MIDI sample.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Białowieża Forest.|
|Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Białowieża National Park.|
- The UNESCO official site
- Białowieża National Park
- Oaks in Bialovieza (English)
- Trees of Białowieża National Park
- BBC radio documentary about the forest (2002)