Belovezhskaya Pushcha / Bialowieza Forest World Heritage Site
Fôret Belovezhskaya Pushcha / Bialowieza, Poland
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Białowieża Forest is an ancient woodland that straddles the border between two countries, Belarus and Poland. It is known as Bielavezhskaya Pushcha in Belarusian, and as Puszcza Białowieska in Polish. It is located 70 km (43 mi) north of Brest (Belarus) and 62 km (39 mi) southeast of Białystok (Poland). It is one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primaeval forest that once stretched across the European Plain.
The border between the two countries runs through the forest. There is a border crossing for hikers and cyclists within it. The forest is home to 800 European bison (wisents), the continent's heaviest land animals. A security fence keeps the Belarusian and Polish bison herds physically and genetically separated.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve is located within parts of the Brest Voblast (Kamianiec and Pruzhany districts) and Hrodna Voblast (Svislach district) in Belarus, and on the Polish side, near the town of Białowieża in the Podlaskie Voivodeship.
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 European bison (reintroduced into the park in 1929), konik (a semi-wild horse), wild boar, moose, 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 part. A new attraction there is a New Year's museum with Ded Moroz (the East Slavic counterpart of Father Christmas).
On the Polish side, part of the Białowieża Forest is protected as the Białowieża National Park (Białowieski Park Narodowy), with general area of about 105 km2 (41 sq mi). There is also the Białowieża Glade (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 parking lot is located there. Guided tours into the strictly controlled 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. Among the group-offers are the birdwatching with local ornithologist, watching bison in their natural environment, and sledge as well as carriage rides, with a bonfire. Nature expert guides can also be found in the nearby urban centres. The popular village of Białowieża lies within the forest. Białowieża means the White Tower in Old Polish.
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 1830–1831, 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.
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 organized 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.
In 1991, the Belavezha Accords, the decision to dissolve the Soviet Union, were signed at a meeting in the Belarusian part of the reserve by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.
The Reserve was added to 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).
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.
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 which will 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).
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. Jurgis Rudkus, the Lithuanian protagonist of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, is said to have been born to a family of peasants in "that part of Lithuania known as Brelovicz."
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