The Belovezhskaya Pushcha / Białowieża Forest, (Belarusian: Белавежская пушча) in Belarus andPuszcza Białowieska in Poland, is an ancient woodland straddling the border between the two countries, located 70 km (43 mi) north of Brest (Belarus) and 62 km (39 mi) south-east of Białystok (Poland). It is one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primeval forest which once spread across the European Plain.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve lies in parts of the Bres Voblast (Kamianiec and Pruzhany districts, BE) and Hrodna Voblast (Svislach district) in Belarus and on the Poland side near the town of Białowieża in the Podlaskie Voivodeship (190 km (120 mi) north-east of Warsaw).
The border between the two countries runs through the forest. There is a border crossing for hikers and cyclists. The forest is home to 800 wisent, the continent's heaviest land animals. A security fence keeps the wisent herds physically and genetically separated.
On the Belarusian side the Biosphere Reserve occupies 1,771 km2 (684 sq mi); the core 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 Belavezhskaya Pushcha headquarters at Kamieniuki, Belarus include laboratory facilities and a zoo where wisent (reintroduced into the park in 1929), konik (a semi-wild horse), wild boar, elk, and other indigenous animals may be viewed in enclosures of their natural habitat. There is also a small museum, restaurant, snack bar and hotel facilities (built during the Soviet era and currently in a state of disrepair). Due to the lack of facilities and little tourist stream in the country, few foreign tourists visit the Belarusian Pushcha annually.
On the Polish side, part of the Białowieża Forest is protected as the Białowieża National Park (Białowieski Park Narodowy), with general area of about 100 km2 (39 sq mi). There is also the Białowieża Glade (Polana Białowieska), with a complex of buildings originally owned by the tsars of Russia – the last private owners of the forest (from 1888 to 1917) when the whole forest was within the Russian Empire. A hotel, restaurant and parking areas are located there. Guided tours into the strictly controlled areas of the park can be arranged on foot or by horse-drawn carriages. Approximately 200,000 tourists visit the Polish part of the forest annually. Among the group offers are: bird watching with local ornitologist, watching bisons in their natural environment, and sledge & carriage rides with bonfire. The popular village of Białowieża lies in the forest.
The entire area of eastern Europe was originally covered by virgin forests similar to that of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha Forest. Travel by people was limited to river routes until about the 14th century; 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 Władysław II Jagiełło who used the forest as a food reserve for his army marching towards the Battle of Grunwald. 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 the Old instituted the death penalty for poaching a wisent (European bison). King Sigismund also built a new wooden hunting manor in Białowieża, which became the namesake for the whole forest.
The forest was declared a hunting reserve in 1541 for the protection of wisent. In 1557, the forest charter was issued, under which a special board was established which examined forest usage. In 1639 King Władysław IV Waza 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 Jan Kazimierz 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, the 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 wisent fell from more than 500 to less than 200 in 15 years. However, in 1801 tsar Alexander I reintroduced the reserve and hired a small number of peasants for protection of the animals, and by the 1830s there were 700 wisent. However, most of the foresters (500 out of 502) took part in the November Uprising of 1830–1831, and their posts were abolished, leading to a breakdown of protection.
Alexander II visited the forest in 1860 and decided that the protection of wisent must be re-established. Following his orders, locals killed all predators: wolves, bears and lynxes. In 1888 the Russian tsars became the owners of all of primeval forest. Once again the forest became a royal hunting reserve. The tsars started sending wisent as gifts to various European capitals, while at the same time populating the forest with deer, elk and other animals imported from all over the empire. The last major tsarist hunt took place in 1912.
During World War I the forest suffered heavy losses. The German army seized the area in August 1915 and started to hunt for the animals. During the more than three years of German occupation, more than 200 kilometres of railway tracks were laid in the forest to develop the industry of the area. Three lumber-mills were built, in Hajnówka and Białowieża and Gródek. Up to 25 September 1915 at least 200 wisent 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 wisent had been killed just a month earlier. Thousands of deer and wild boar had also been shot by marauding soldiers.
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 discovered that only 54 wisent survived the war in various zoos all around the world – none of them in Poland. In 1929 a small herd of four wisent was bought by the Polish state from various zoos and from the Western Caucasus (where the wisent was to become extinct just several years afterwards – these animals were of the slightly different Caucasian subspecies). Most of the forest was declared a national park in 1932.
The reintroduction proved successful and in 1939 there were 16 wisent in Białowieża National Park. Two of them were from the zoo in Pszczyna and were descendants of a pair of wisent 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. They were replaced with Soviet forest workers, but in 1941 the forest was occupied by Germans and the Soviet inhabitants were also deported. Hermann Göring planned to create the biggest hunting reserve in the world there. After July 1941 the forest became a refuge for both Polish and Soviet partisans, and German authorities organized mass executions of people suspected of aiding the resistance. (A few graves of people who were "disappeared" by the Gestapo can still be seen in the forest.) In July 1944 the area was liberated 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 in the Polish part the Białowieża National Park was reopened 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 Reserve was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1992 and internationally recognised as a Biosphere Reserve under UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme in 1993 (the Polish part had been so designated in 1976).
A new attraction in the Belarusian part of the Reserve is a New Year museum and the residence of Dzied Maroz or Ded Moroz ("Grandfather Frost", the East Slavic counterpart of Father Christmas). Thousands of tourists visit this museum.
The Belarusian part of the reserve also became the place where the Belavezha Accords were signed by leaders of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus to dissolve the USSR.
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 Puszcza 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.
- Tsar Oak (Belarusian) (Cyrillic: Царь-Дуб) of Belarus. Oldest Belarusian oak, standing 46m tall, having a diameter in excess of 2m, and being over 800 years of age. It stands 2 km from Staroje Romatowo. It has been a national monument since 1963
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.
The forest is the subject of a famous Russian ballad, "Belovezhskaya Pushcha", composed in 1975 by Aleksandra Pakhmutova, with lyrics by Nikolai Dobronravov performed by Belarusian folk band Pesniary. It includes the lines:
Here is our long-forgotten family home.
And, having heard now and then the voice of ancestors calling,
Like a grey little forest bird, from far-away centuries,
I fly to you, Belovezhskaya Pushcha.
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Здесь забытый давно наш родительский кров.
И, услышав порой голос предков зовущий,
Серой птицей лесной из далёких веков
Я к тебе прилетаю, Беловежская пуща.
Belovezhskaya Pushcha is 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.