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Short description of the Białowieża National Park

Białowieża Primeval Forest

Białowieża Forest (52° 41' 55" - 52° 59' 15" N, 23° 43' 10" - 23° 56' 30" E) is a World Heritage Site located in north east-central Poland on the border with Belarus in Bialostockie administrative region, 62 kilometers (km) south-east of Białystok and 190 km north-east of Warsaw. The park is bounded by the Hwoźna and Narewka Rivers to the north and west  respectively, Belovezhkaja Puscha National Park, Belarus to the east, and national forests to the south. The park belongs to Boreonemoral biogeographical province.

Date and History of Establishment

  • 1801: reintroduction of the forest protection (after ~15 years of intensive hunting);
  • 1860: reintroduction of the protection of European bison (Bison bonasus);
  • 1921: Puszcza Białowieska was declared a National Reserve, as a forestry 'preservation';
  • 1929: reintroduction of European bison (Bison bonasus);1932: designated a national park;
  • 1944/47: reestablishing the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park and Białowieza National Park;
  • 1976: internationally recognized as a Biosphere Reserve under United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) Man and the Biosphere Programme;
  • 1979: inscribed on the World Heritage List and extended in 1999.

Białowieża Forest forms a transboundary park with Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park which was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1992 and designated an International Biosphere Reserve the following year.

The entire area of eastern Europe was originally covered by virgin forests similar to the Białowieża Forest. 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 the 15th century the forest became a property of Polish 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 the 1426 plague. The first recorded piece of legislation on the protection of the forest dates to 1538 when a document issued by Polish king Zygmunt Stary (Sigismund I Old) instituted the death penalty for poaching a wisent (European bison). 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. In 1557, the forest charter was issued, under which a special board was established which examined forest usage. In 1639 Polish king Władysław IV Waza (Wladislaus 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 royal hunters. 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 Polish king Jan Kazimierz (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 Podlachia and many of them still exist.

After the Partitions of Poland, the Emperor Paul I of Russia turned all foresters 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, European bison (Bison bonasus), fell from more than 500 to less than 200 in 15 years. However, in 1801 the Emperor Alexander I of Russia reintroduced the reserve and hired a small amount of peasants for protection of the animals. By the 1830s there were 700 wisents. However, since most of the foresters took part in the November Uprising (500 out of 502), their posts were abolished, leading to a breakdown of protection.

The Emperor Alexander II of Russia 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 Emperors became the owners of all of primeval forest. Once again the forest became a royal hunting reserve. The Emperors started sending the wisents 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 emperor's 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 there in order to ease the industrial development of the area. Three lumber-mills were built, in Hajnówka, Białowieża and Gródek towns. Until September 25, 1915, when an order was issued not to hunt in the reserve, at least 200 wisents were killed. 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 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 four wisents 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). To protect them, most of the forest was declared a national park in 1932.

The reintroduction proved successful and in 1939 there were 16 wisents in Bialowieza National Park. Two of them come from the zoological garden in Pszczyna, they were direct descendants of a pair of wisents from the Puszcza Białowieska given to Duke of Pszczyna by Emperor of Russia Alexander II in 1865.

In 1939 the local Polish inhabitants were deported to remote areas of the Soviet Union and they were replaced with Soviet forest workers, later in 1941 the forest was occupied by Germans and the Soviet inhabitants were also deported, as Germans had planned to create there the biggest hunting reserve in the world. Since July 1941 the forest became a refuge for both Armia Krajowa (Polish Underground Army) and Soviet Partisans. German authorities organized mass executions of people suspected of aiding the resistance movement. In July 1944 the area was liberated by the Red Army. Withdrawing German Army, the Wehrmacht, demolished the historic Białowieza hunting manor.

After the war a 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 Białowieza 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, on October 9, 1944; Order No. 2252-P of the USSR Council of Ministers 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 1979).

The Bialowieza Forest is a total of 10,501 hectares (ha), with 4,747 ha designated as a Strict Nature Reserve. This is contiguous to Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park (87,600 ha), Belarus, in the east. An extension of 5,186 ha to the World Heritage area has been proposed, on the Polish side.

Situated on the hydrological divide between the Baltic and Black Seas, and lies in the drainage basin of the River Narewka, a tributary of the Narew. Most of the water is drained by the River Orłówka, and the remainder by the Rivers Narewka and Hwozna. The area is covered by the central Poland glacial formation with deposits composed of deep sands, sands overlying clays (40%), and clays and loams overlying the Cretaceous bedrock (35%). Other major deposits are organogenic formations of peat and marshy peat which occur in river valleys and local depressions which often contain raised mire systems.

Vegetation

The national park is situated in the central part of an extensive forest complex (1,250 square kilometers (km2)) with 113 plant associations in the Polish area of 57,000 ha. This includes forest stands which show characteristics of primeval forest, a unique fragment of lowland natural forest in this part of Europe. Within the national park there are 20 forest associations, four communities of water plants, two shrub communities and 13 communities of peat bogs and meadows. Within the strict preservation area there are 632 species of vascular plants, constituting about 29% of the flora of Poland. All the major forest associations found in this part of Europe occur, some being represented by East European forms, such as Tilio-Carpinetum communities whilst others by Central European forms like Querco-Carpinetum. In addition to the 35 shrub species present, dominant tree species include Picea abies, P. silvestris, Carpinus betulus, Tilia cordata, Alnus glutinosa, Quercus robur, Acer platanoides, Fraxinus excelsior, Betula pubescens, B. verrucosa and Populus tremula. There is an absence of beech, yew and larch.

Brushwood associations on the peat soils are composed mainly of Salix cinerea, Betula humilis and Pinus silvestris. Meadow associations and aquatic communities also occur. Rare plant species include Pedicularis sceptrum carolinum, Salix myrtilloides, Betula obscura, Isophyrum thalictroides, 12 Orchidaceae, Saxifraga hirculus, Lathyrus laevigatus and Hedera helix (here at its eastern range). Some 632 vascular plant species have been recorded, of which 443 are native and the remainder being anthropogenic introductions. There are also 254 lichen species, 80 liverworts and more than 3,000 fungi.

Fauna

There are 54 species of mammal including European bison Bison bonasus (EN), grey wolf Canis lupus and lynx Felis lynx, otter Lutra lutra, beaver Castor fiber (LR) (re-introduced in 1955), northern birch mouse Sicista betulina (LR) and masked shrew Sorex caecutiens (the only known population in Poland), as well as elk Alces alces (uncommon). Common mammals are red deer Cervus elaphus, roe deer Capreolus capreolus and wild boar Sus scrofa. The park is the site of a successful re-establishment of European bison Bison bonasus (exterminated in Bialowieza Forest in 1919). Reintroduction was initiated in 1929 in a fenced reserve which forms part of the park. In 1952 this effort was extended by reintroducing bison into forest areas outside the fenced reserve. At present 300 bison range freely on the Polish side, and 240 on the Belarus side. Beaver Castor fiber has also been reintroduced successfully.

There are some 232 species of birds recorded in the Bialowieza region, 120 of which breed in the park and include capercaillie Tetrao urogallus, black stork Ciconia nigra, crane Grus grus, most European owls including pygmy Glaucidium passerinum and eagle owl Bubo bubo, a large number of raptors such as spotted eagle Aquila clanga (VU) and booted eagle Hieraeetus pennatus, three-toed woodpecker Picoides tridactylus, white-backed woodpecker Dendrocopus leucotos, redwing Turdus iliacus, nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes and red-breasted flycatcher Muscicapa parva. Approximately 8,500 species of insects have been recorded including the beetles: Carabus menetriesi, Orthothomicus longicollis, Pytho kolwensis, Boros schneideri. Twelve species of amphibian and seven reptile species have also been recorded.

Scientific Research and Facilities

The park has been used for scientific research since the 1920's when Professor Paczoski, a prominent botanist and phytosociologist, was appointed as the first manager of the park. Results of his research are included in Forests of Białowieża (1930). Zoological studies, especially on wood-boring insects, began in 1929 by Professor Jerzy Karpiński, Professor Paczoski's successor, and were extended by Professor Dehnel. The park staff are currently carrying out work on the structure of the forests, ecology of bison and entomology. In addition, seventeen scientific institutions are carrying out research in the park. The park facilitates studies on structure and functioning of natural ecosystems, natural succession, and the flow of substances and energy within ecosystems (as well as observing human impacts on these processes), the circulation of parasites in natural and modified ecosystems, classification of animals (especially of lower systematic units), forest management, biological control of pest insects, genetically valuable ecotypes of indigenous tree species, and the improvement of forest productivity. There are five research institutions located in Białowieża Natural Forests Department of the Forest Research Institute field station (established in 1930); Mammal Research Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences (1954); Białowieża Geobotanical Station of Warsaw University (1956); Plant Demography Laboratory of the Institute of Botany of the Polish Academy of Sciences (1980); and the Laboratory on the Ecology and Protection of Natural Habitats (1991). There are permanent study plots, some established in 1936, for the study of forest dynamics. The Museum of Nature and Forestry is managed by a custodian.