Straddling the border of Poland and Belarus, there is a reminder of what Europe used to look like before the arrival of man. Białowieża Forest is the largest remaining part of a vast primeval forest that stretched for thousands of miles from corner to corner of the European plain. Something very large and very rare still stirs within the forest.
Although the forest is shared by Poland and Belarus, the border running directly through it, it is now a single UNESCO World Heritage Site. As these photographs show, little has changed here for thousands of years. It is still home to Europe’s heaviest land mammal – the Wisent. Yet the area has been witness to tumultuous social and political changes, one of which was to see the wisent eradicated from the confines of the forest. Białowieża saw little peace in the twentieth century.
Its geography was not always pivotal to the future of the region. Although the forest is visited today by many thousands of people, the only passage through it was by boat until the fourteenth century. Then, when it came in to the hands of the Polish King Władysław II, the worth of the woodland and its wildlife was recognised. It was protected and used as a source of food for the Polish army (when it was recalled under the leadership of the nobility). Anyone caught poaching wisent would be summarily put to the sword.
The forest was further protected by Władysław IV in 1639. He freed all the peasants living in the area on a single condition; that they would become royal foresters and look after the place for the king. Unusually for an any monarch at this time, Władysław also relieved them of paying any taxes.
The latter part of the same century saw the establishment of a few villages the populations of which developed small local industries to extract iron-ore and to produce tar (a pit of which you can see above).
The late 1700s was a dreadful time for the Poles. The once thriving Polish-Lithuanian was obliterated and the country was partitioned no less than three times in the space of a few decades. Russia, Prussia and Hapsburg Austria carved up the country and Białowieża fell in to the hands of the Russians.
The free foresters were at once demoted back to serfdom. Open season all year round was announced for the Russian aristocracy and within a few years the number of wisent had fallen to only 200. Fortunately, the next tsar reintroduced protection and re-hired many of the foresters. This raised the numbers of wisent to around 500 even though there was a revolt in 1830 which left the area without protection again.
From then until the First World War the vast forest was under the protection of the tsars. It became a royal playground again with many of the major predators wiped out and deer and moose imported from other parts of the empire. The last royal hunt took place in 1912 but it the outbreak of the Great War which was to be catastrophic for Białowieża.
The German army seized the area in 1915 and this led to unregulated hunting yet again. Not only that, the Germans exploited the forest’s natural resources to help their war effort and whole swathes of it were cut down. It was not until 1919 that the Polish army recaptured the forest. Not a single wisent remained.
The Polish-Soviet war of 1921 saw the forest back in Polish hands. As peace finally prevailed, a desperate search of the world’s zoos began. By 1923, 54 wisent had been discovered in various zoos around the world – not one, incidentally, in Poland. Fortunately, a number of zoos agreed to sell their wisent and in 1929 four were reintroduced in to the forest. Białowieża became a National Park the year later.
By 1939 there were sixteen wisent in the park. The area became a victim of Stalin’s ethnic cleansing. All people of Polish origin were deported to far-flung areas of the Soviet Union and Russian forest workers were brought in. Yet Germany, licking its wounds for twenty years, was ready for round two. By 1941 they were back in the forest and the new Russian inhabitants were either killed or thrown out.
Hitler’s deputy Hermann Göring envisioned the place as the world’s largest hunting reserves but his dreams were short-lived. The forest was partially controlled by Polish and Russian partisans and the Germans never really took control, despite the Gestapo’s brutal attempts to do so. By 1944 the Red Army had retaken the forest and the year later Göring would commit suicide in American custody.
The end of the war saw the forest divided. Poland took control of one third and the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic took the remaining area. The Soviet part became controlled under public administration while the Polish part became, once again, a National Park. In 1991 the Belarus part saw another historic event. The leader of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus signed the Belavezha Accords: the USSR was consigned to history in the heart of this ancient forest.
Yet what of the wisent? Thanks to carefully monitored breeding and care programs, the herd is now up to 800 animals strong. The deep bellow of Europe’s largest mammal carries through Europe’s largest primeval forest once again and, will, it is hoped, forever more.