blew down

Białowieża Forest

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.

Belarusian part

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.

Polish part

On the Polish side, in the Białowieża National Park, there is the Białowieska Glade, a building complex 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. The village of Białowieża lies on the edge of the forest.


The entire area of eastern Europe was originally covered by virgin forests similar to the Białowieża 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 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 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.

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.

Named oaks

(Trunk circumferences are measured at breast height: from the base)

  • Great Mamamuszi. Circumference (2005), height . 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. From 1989 the tree's circumference grew by . Of all the oaks in Białowieża with a circumference above , it is in the best condition.
  • The King of Nieznanowo. Circumference , height . This tree has one of the most columnar trunks among the oaks in Białowieża, 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 .
  • Emperor of the South. Circumference , height . The tree shows no clear signs of dying.
  • Emperor of the North. Circumference , height . The tree has a very regular trunk and shows no clear signs of dying.
  • Southern Cross. Circumference , height . 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 . 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 , height . 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 , height over . 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.
  • Tsar Oak. Circumference , height . The tree's volume has been estimated at . 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.
  • Dominator Oak. Circumference , height over . One of the thickest oaks of the Puszcza Białowieska, the tree has been dead since 1992 and its trunk is now largely devoid of bark. For many years it dominated the Puszcza Białowieska as far as size is concerned. Its age is estimated at 450 years.
  • The Jagiełło Oak. Circumference (when growing) , height . 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.

In culture

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:

Здесь забытый давно наш родительский кров.
И, услышав порой голос предков зовущий,
Серой птицей лесной из далёких веков
Я к тебе прилетаю, Беловежская пуща.

Zdes’ zabytyj davno naš roditel'skij krov.
I, uslyšav poroj golos predkov zovuščij,
Seroj pticej lesnoj iz dalëkix vekov
Ja k tebe priletaju, Belovežskaja pušča.

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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