Bialowieza forest under the lens
Bialowieza, the divided forest
The border between Poland and Belarus runs through the 150,000 hectare large Bialowieza forest. Two thirds of the forest belongs to Belarus, one third to Poland. The forest is the last ancient woodland in Europe, largely untouched since the last Ice Age, 12,000 years ago. Today, the Bialowieza National Park consists of a number of strictly protected nature reserves.
Many of the trees in the Bialowieza National Park could dwarf a 12-story house. The forest has gone 8,000 years without any meaningful interference from humans. If a storm topples the woodland’s oak, linden or beech trees, they are left to rot on the forest floor. If the plant life is ravaged by disease or parasites, nature is left to fight for itself.
A wealth of biodiversity
The Bialowieski forest is home to some 20,000 types of flora and fauna, including dozens of species of ferns. In 1979, UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve.
The return of the wisent
The wisent is sometimes called the “European king of the forest". They can be up to 2 meters tall and weigh up to 1000 kg, making them the continent’s heaviest land animals. The planet is home to about 4500 wisents, more than 900 of which are in the Bialowieza Forest. Although wild bison can be found in other regions, the biggest free-living herd in Europe is here in Bialowieza.
As well as the wisent, almost 60 other mammal species make their home in the Bialowieza forest. One of them is the canis lupus, the wolf. They weigh about 40 kilos and eat up to 12 kilos of meat a day, which is more than they can digest. They regurgitate some of what they have eaten in their dens and store it.
The early birds catch the worms
The best time to spot the forest’s animal life is early in the morning. Four am is an ideal time to catch a glimpse of deer and roe. Tourists can take special tours with gamekeepers familiar with every inch of the forest, who know exactly where a sighting is most likely.
Wildcats under threat
The Bialowieza Forest is home to a declining population of lynxes. These wildcats are a threatened species in Europe. Poland is now home to only 200 of them. Their natural habitat is thick forest, they like to hunt at night and they feed on wide range of animals, from deer to smaller prey such as hares, fish, foxes, sheep, squirrels, mice and birds.
A scientific treasure trove
Its unique biodiversity makes the Bialowieza Forest a fascinating object of scientific study. Researchers at the Mammal Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences are especially interested in bison and elk. Before they can study them up close, they need to catch them, which they do with the help of a tranquilizer dart. This elk is still woozy but will soon be back on his feet.
Tree fungi love rotten wood and draw the nutrients they need to flourish directly from the tree trunk. Biologists have identified roughly 3500 types of fungi in the Bialowieza Forest – few of which are edible!
In spring, the forest floor blooms with flowers. Local plant life also flourishes in Bialowieza’s many pools and ponds, like these water ferns, which are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in many parts of Europe.
The town of Bialowieza
Close to the forest, the town of Bialowieza lives almost entirely off the tourist industry. Back-to-back hostels and hotels line its streets, catering to the 100,000 some visitors who come here every year.
Idyllic and isolated
Bialowieza might be a beautiful place to visit, but young people in particular are moving away in droves. There is little industry here, little infrastructure and few jobs. Unless people work in tourism or at one of the research institutes based here, they are best off looking for work in the cities. Only the elderly tend to stay.
Biodiversity takes up a lot of room
Today, only 16 percent of the Bialowieza forest is protected. As far as environmental activists are concerned, that’s not enough. They are pushing for an extension of the nature reserve, maintaining that the area’s unique biodiversity is otherwise at risk.
The natural cycle
Summer doesn’t last long in Eastern Europe. By October, the nights get longer and colder. When winter comes, the Bialowieza is covered in a blanket of snow and temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius are commonplace. Silence reigns in the forest until nature comes back to life in spring.