Białowieża Primaeval Forest, known as Belavezhskaya Pushcha (Белавеская пушча) in Belarus and Puszcza Białowieska in Poland, is an ancient virginal forest straddling the border between Belarus and Poland, located 70 km north of Brest. It is the only remaining part of the once immense forest spreading across the European Plains.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve lies in south-western Belarus, in parts of the Brest voblast (Kamenets and Pruzhany districts) and Hrodna voblast (Svisloch district), and near the town of Białowieża in the Podlasie Voivodship (62 km south-east of Białystok and 190km north-east of Warsaw) in Poland. On the Polish side it is partly protected as Białowieski Park Narodowy, or Białowieża National Park, and occupies over 100 km˛. On the Belarussian side the Biosphere Reserve occupies 1,771 km˛; the core area covers 157 km˛; the buffer zone - 714 km˛; and the transition zone - 900 km˛ with the National Park and World Heritage Site comprising 876 km˛. The border dividing 2 countries runs across the forest and it is closed for big animals and tourists as well, for the time being.
The Belarusian part of the Reserve
The Belovezhskaya Pushcha headquarters at Kamieniuki, Belarus include laboratory facilities, 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 their natural habitat, as well as a small interpretive museum, restaurant, snack bar and hotel facilities which were built during the Soviet era and are currently in a state of disrepair. Due to the lack of facilities and internal tourist regulations (special registration in Brest, Belarus is needed in the Visa office of the Ministry of the Interior Affairs, or in the Intourist hotel) few foreign tourists visit the Belarusian Pushcha annually.
The Polish part of the Reserve
On the Polish side, in the Białowieża National Park, one finds the Białowieska Glade, originally built for the tsars of Russia — the last private owners of the forest (from 1888 to 1917) when the whole forest was within the Russian Empire. The Glade is equipped with a hotel, restaurant and parking areas. Guided tours into the strictly controlled areas of the park can be arranged by horse drawn carriage. Approximately 100,000 tourists visit the Polish part of the Forest annually.
History of the forest and the reserve
This area of eastern Europe was originally covered by viriginal forests like the Belovezhskaya Pushcha. People traveled along river routes until the 14th century; roads and bridges appeared much later. Limited hunting rights were granted throughout the forest in the 14th century. In 15th century the forest became a property of king Władysław 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 the 1426 plague. The first recorded piece of legislation on the protection of the forest dates to 1538 when a document issued by king Sigismund the Old instituted the death penalty for poaching a wisent. He 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 (European bison). 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 hunters. They were also freed of taxes in exchange for taking care of the forest. The forrest 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 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 Podlachia and many of them still exist.
After the Partitions of Poland tsar Paul turned all forresters into serfs and handed them over along with parts of forest which they lived in to various Russian aristocrats and generals. Also, a large number of hunters entered the forest since all protection was abolished. The number of wisents 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 amount of peasants for protection of the animals. By the 1830s the number of wisents reach 700. However, since most of the forresters took part in the November Uprising (500 out of 502), their posts were abolished, leading to a breakdown of protection.
Alexander II visited the forest in 1860 and decided that the protection of wisents must be reintroduced. Following his orders, locals killed all predators: wolves, bears and lynxes. In 1888 the Russian tsars became the owners of all of Pushcha. Once again the forest became a royal hunting reserve. The tsars started sending the wisents as gifts to various European capitals while at the same time populating the forest with deers, elks and other animals brought from all over the empire. The last major tsarist hunt took place in 1912.
During the 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 3,5 years of German occupation more than 200 kilometres of railway tracks were laid in there in order to ease the industrial development of the area. Three big lumber-mills were built in Hajnówka, Białowieża and Gródek. Until September 25 when an order was issued not to hunt in the reserve at least 200 wisents were killed. However, German soldiers, poachers and Russian marauders continued the slaughter until February 1919 when the area was captured by the Polish army. The last wisent was killed just a month earlier.
After the Polish-Soviet War in 1921 the core of Puszcza Białowieska was declared a National Reserve. In 1923 it was discovered that only 54 wisents survived the war in various zoological gardens all around the world _ none of them in Poland. In 1929 a small herd of 4 wisents was bought by the Polish state from various zoological gardens and from the Caucasus (where the wisent became extinct just several years afterwards). To protect them, most of the forest was declared a Białowieża National Park in 1932.
The reintroduction proved succesful and in 1939 there were 16 wisents in the Białowieża National Park. Two of them were from the zoological garden in Pszczyna and were direct descendants of a pair of wisents from the forest given to Duke of Pszczyna by tsar Alexander II in 1865.
During the World War II, after the German occupation of Poland the area fell under Soviet occupation. In 1939 most of the local inhabitants were arrested and sent to the Gulag. They were replaced with Russian forest workers, but in 1941 the forest was occupied by Germans and the Russian inhabitants were also deported. Hermann Göring planned to create the biggest hunting reserve in the world there, but those plans never came to fruition. Since July 1941 the forest became a refuge for both Polish and Soviet partisans. German authorities organized mass executions of people suspected of aiding the resistance. In July 1944 the area was captured by the Red Army. Withdrawing Wehrmacht blew up the historical Białowieża hunting manor.
After the war part of the forest was left in Poland while a large part was annexed by USSR to Belarussian SSR. The Soviet part was put under public administration while in the Polish part the Białowieża National Park was reopened in 1947.
The Pushcha was protected under: Decision No. 657 of the Council of People's Commissars of the USSR, 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, September 16, 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.
A new attraction in the Belarusian part of the Reserve is a museum of the "New Year" and the residence of Father Frost (Dzied Maroz or Ded Moroz, literally: Grandfather Frost; the East Slavic counterpart of Santa Claus). Thousands of tourists have visited this museum as of January 1, 2004.
The Belarusian part of the reserve also became the place where the leaders of the three East Slavic nations signed the agreement to dissolve USSR. On December 8, 1991, Belarus Supreme Soviet Chairman Stanislau Shushkevich, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, and Russian President Soviet Union as a geopolitical reality [and] a subject of international law has ceased to exist." The document simultaneously announced the creation of a new entity in the post-USSR territory - the Commonwealth of Independent States.