Bialowieza Forest is the last unspoiled ancient woodland in Europe. How has it survived over the centuries?
1409 – Bison and the Bialowieza Forest
The forest was declared a hunting reserve for the Polish kings in the early 15th century – as long as the forest remained untouched, its wildlife stayed put. Bison, or wisent, in particular thrived under the protection of the Polish kings, who passed a decree banning felling. Thanks to its status as a royal hunting ground, the forest remained intact for hundreds of years.
1795 - 1918 – Changing hands
In 1795, the Russian Empire together with the Kingdom of Prussia and Habsburg Austria carried out the third and last partition of Poland. From then on, the Russian Tsars controlled the Bialowieza Forest and turned it into their private property. In the late 19th century, Tsar Nicholas had a palace built in the forest, which was torn down after the Second World War. Hunting was forbidden to all but the tsars during this era. Anyone caught hunting bison was punished with the death sentence.
1857 – A thriving bison population
The special status of the Bialowieza Forest as a hunting ground ensured its survival for centuries. As time went by, the bison population thrived and reached an unprecedented high of 1,900 by 1857. But the population declined in subsequent years primarily due to disease. By 1917, it had dropped to just 150.
1917/1918 – War arrives in the forest
The forest suffered heavy losses during the First World War. The German army seized the area in 1915. During the more than three years of German occupation, more than 200 kilometers of railway tracks were laid in the forest and a number of lumber mills were built.
1919 – The last bison is killed
German soldiers, poachers, and Soviet marauders slaughtered the forest’s bison, killing the very last wisent in early 1919. But after the Polish–Soviet war in 1921, the core of the Bialowieza forest, encompassing some 4,500 hectares on the Polish side, was declared a national reserve.
1929 – Reintroducing bison
After the First World War, Poland had become a sovereign state and in 1929 bought a small herd of four wisent from various zoos across Europe. Most of the forest was declared a national park in 1932. The reintroduction proved successful, and by 1939 there were 16 bison in the Bialowieza National Park.
1941 – German troops occupy the forest
The forest was not protected for long, though. It was again occupied by German troops during the Second World War. In his capacity as Minister of the German Forests, Hermann Göring supervised the "Germanization" of forests in conquered territories and planned to create the largest hunting reserve in the world in Bialowieza.
1944 – A forest straddling two countries
In July 1944 the area was liberated by the Red Army. After the war, the forest was divided between Poland, which got one third of the area, and the ByelorussianSoviet Socialist Republic. The Soviet part was put under public administration while in Poland, the Białowieża National Park reopened in 1947. On the Soviet side, the forest was made a conservation area but the Białowieżskaja Puszcza National Park only dates back to 1991.
UNESCO World Heritage site
1977/79 - Bialowieza becomes a World Heritage site
The Polish national park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in the late 1970s. In 1992, UNESCO extended the status of the park of world heritage to the east by adding the bordering Belarusian national park, Białowieżskaja Puszcza. The park continues to be extended – to the delight of environmental activists but to the dismay of locals.
2012 – The present day
Today, the forest boasts exceptional biodiversity: 20,000 plant and animal species live in this 150,000 hectare woodland, including 900 bison. As a result, a number of world-class research institutes are based in the town of Bialowieza, such as the Mammal Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences.