Białowieża Primaeval Forest, known as Belaveskaya Pushcha (Белавеская пушча) or Belovezhskaya Pushcha in Belarus and in Poland, is an ancient woodland straddling the border between Belarus and Poland, located north of Brest. 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 south-western Belarus, in parts of the Brest Voblast (Kamianiec and Pruzhany districts) and Hrodna Voblast (Svislach district), and near the town of Białowieża in the Podlaskie Voivodeship (south-east of Białystok and north-east of Warsaw) in Poland. On the Polish side it is partly protected as Białowieski Park Narodowy (Białowieża National Park), and occupies over . On the Belarusian side the Biosphere Reserve occupies ; the core area covers ; the buffer zone ; and the transition zone ; the National Park and World Heritage Site comprises . The border between the two countries runs through the forest and is closed for large animals and tourists for the time being. The security fence keeps the wisent on either side of it genetically isolated from each other.
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 Podlachia 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 in order to develop the industry of the area. Three lumber-mills were built, in Hajnówka, Białowieża and Gródek. Up to September 25 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.
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 wisent survived the war in various zoological gardens 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 zoological gardens 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 zoological garden in Pszczyna and were direct descendants of a pair of wisent from the forest given to 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. 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, 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 (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.
(Trunk circumferences are measured at breast height: from the base)
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 Belarussian folk VIA Pesnery. It includes the lines: