From distant ages
As a protected natural area, Belovezhskaya Pushcha has been known since late 14th — early 15th centuries. Starting from 1413, it was in Polish possession, and belonged to Russia from 1795. In 1919 the forest reserve fell under Poland domain again and was appended to Belarusian Socialist Soviet Republic in 1939.
In 1944, during a Poland-Soviet meeting Josef Stalin draw a red line in a map. Since then it is an official border that divides the two countries and splits Belovezhskaya Pushcha. One part (about 60 thousand ha) belongs to Poland together with Belovezha, heart of the reserve, and a wisent nursery; another part (nearly 70 thousand ha) is left for Belarus.
The relict forest led its own life, for there are no borders for trees and animals. However, social life on both sides of barbed wire was different in intension.
As early as in 1977 the Poles managed to attain the status of biosphere reserve for the forest. In 1979 the Belovezhsky people′s park was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Beside scientific research, Poland performed serious activities in tourist business and attracted 150-200 thousand visitors to this reserved area each year.
A scientific-administrative building, Museum of Nature and a governmental hunting complex "Viskuli" have been constructed in the Belarusian part of the reserve throughout Soviet years. It was open for tourists but inaccessible for open public and maintained the status of an elite recreation facility for high-ranking officials.
After signing the notorious agreement on USSR collapse in "Viskuli" the post-Soviet epoch in reserve history began. It was much more transparent. In early 90s the national park was designated a World Heritage Site. Belovezhskaya Pushcha acquired biosphere reserve status. In 1997 Belovezhskaya Pushcha was awarded with European diploma by Council of Europe. At the same time, mass tourism development started. Virtually everyone gained offing to travel along reserve routes with a guide and enjoy the beauty of unique forest and rest in bungalows and manors formerly built for party officials. In 1999 scientific tourism program was launched, which allowed researchers to travel in the park for scientific reasons. Recently built residence of Father Frost (our Santa Claus) invites guests, tooЎ
Nearly 30 thousand tourists visited Belovezhskaya Pushcha national park in two summer months alone this year. Administration of the reserve explains this with the improvement of tourist infrastructure: three local hotels were the first within Belarus national park system to gain three-star status, restaurants, saunas, tennis courts and various amenities emerged in the reserve. Number of tourists has grown by over 40 per cent as compared to previous year.
Statuary majesty of everlasting oaks
Average age of trees in the reserve is over 100 years. Some forest parts are 250-350 years old. There is over one thousand giant trees in the reserve: 400-600-aged oaks, pines and ash trees of 250-350 years old, two-century old fir trees. Belovezhskaya Pushcha ranks to no one in diversity of plant and animal species in the European continent. Scientists recorded 958 species of tracheal cryptogamous and seed plants, 260 species of mosses and muscoids, over 290 species of lichens and 570 species of mushrooms. Forest fauna is represented by 59 mammal species, 227 species of birds, 7 species of reptiles, 11 amphibians, 24 species of fish and over 11,000 invertebrate animal species.
The aurochs is the jewel of the forest. Aurochs population in the reserve is the largest in the world and is about three hundred animals. Some years ago I was lucky to see them out of box. It was winter and I saw aurochs feeding. I had not enough courage to sit on the forage wagon and enter the herd with the warden. I must admit I wasn′t afraid, for the herd was too much like a stock of cows. Kingly aurochs enjoyed beetroot and paid no attention neither to the man in the wagon, nor to the horse, nor to me hidden behind a tree a hundred yards away. Yet the warden told me it was delusion to think aurochs are peaceful. Forest residents can tell many sad stories about the man and the aurochs.
Besides, the reserve shown to tourists is a minor part of the relict forest. There are 4 functional areas with different protection conditions in Belovezhskaya Pushcha: forbidden area (the so-called reservation, were the man is prohibited to touch even fallen trees), area of controllable use, recreation and utility zones. There is a protection (buffer) zone around the reserve.
Onno de Bruijn, natural scientist from Holland and an activist of "Natuurmonumenten" nature protection organization, has visited the reserve several years ago and said: "For all of us working in nature conservation in western Europe, "Bialowieza forest" has a magic sound as an outstanding reference area of natural ecosystems (especially forests, natural rivers, and bog and fen systems) which in our countries have totally, or for the greater part, been lost either long ago or in more recent centuriesЎ this area may well be the most important nature reserve in Europe. It is unique because of the natural character and the extensiveness of its forests, and because of the completeness of its ecosystems with vital populations of rare and threatened animals."
One couldn′t say betterЎ
Park protection and hunting were not always in agreement. There were enough animals at all times: aurochs, elk, boar, wolf, fox, roe, wood grouse, hazel hen, blackcock were a good attraction for the high and mighties. Russian prince Vladimir Monomakh hunted here in the 12th century, thene Lithuanian dukes Troiden and Jagailo enjoyed gaming here. In the 15th century Polish magnates arranged magnificent entertainments in the forest (at that time the woodland was named Belovezhskaya Pushcha).
And after the annexation of the forest to the Russian Empire hunts became truly kinglike. Catherine the Great allowed her noblemen to hunt without restriction, which resulted in rapid rundown of wildlife population, bear and beaver were hunted into extinction.
In 1803, under Alexander I rule, the woodland gained czar′s reservation status. In 1831 the forest expanded — it was adjoined with Svisloch Manor confiscated from Tadeush Tyshkevich, Polish nobleman, for his participation in anti-Russian rebellion. Though there were hunts throughout those years, real great czar hunt began only in 1860 in Belovezhskaya Pushcha. That game was timed for talks with Austria and Prussia, important for Russia. Today such events are called "unofficial".
That′s how that hunt was depicted in splendid album with illustrations by Mikhail Zychi, honorary academician of Russian Academy of arts, published in 1861: "Emperor Alexander II, duke of Saxon-Weimar, princes Carl and Albert of Prussia, August of Wurtemberg, Frederick of Hessen-Kassel and numerous following arrived to Belovezhskaya Pushcha on the night October 5-6, 1860. A celebratory fireworks greeted the imperial arrival.
Long before that thousands of drive beaters hunted and whisked aurochs, elks, chamois, boar and foxes into a specially arranged enclosure. Twelve fire ranges concealed with green branches were prepared for shooters. One range was for the Emperor of Russia, five for Austrian princes, the rest were for the escort.
At dawn of October 6, beaters chevied animals to the line of fire, triggered by signal from Alexander II. Shots were heard till four p.m. 44 animals, including 16 aurochs and 4 boars were shot on that day. Emperor′s bag was of 4 aurochs and 1 boar. In the evening the host and his guests had dinner with accompanying music played by orchestra of Velykie Luki infantry regiment.
The hunt was continued on October, 7. 52 more animals were shot, Emperor shot down 6 aurochs′Ў
Alexander III built a hunting residence in Bialowieza — it was a palace of 134 rooms (destroyed in 1944). But Emperor was sick, hunting was of no interest to him, and the residence lied dormant. Nikolai II turned Bialowieza into an official hunting residence. Czar games became regular — 1984, 1897, 1900, 1903, 1912Ў
As the local say, hunters did not observe gaming traditions in Soviet period. There were no either "King of the hunt", or hunting ceremonies anymore.
And what is for today? Now there are rather games for foreign tourists, who travel hundreds or even thousands km far and buy expensive licenses to hunt in the Park (or, to be exact, in Shereshevskoe forestry).
Belovezhskaya Pushcha is situated in southwestern part of Belarus, 340 km from Minsk and lies both in Brest and Grodno regions. Square area of the Park is about 120,000ha. The park includes state border between Belarus and Poland. Watershed between the Baltic and the Black seas is not far from the woodland.
Belovezhskaya Pushcha is the major but not the only nature jewel of Brest region.The region can also astonish a nature-loving tourist with:
- Dikoe and Zvanets, Europe′s largest fen bogs;
- largest untouched forest-marsh land in main European watershed near the Vygoshchanskoe lake, Ivatsevichi district;
- giant oak in Pozhezhinskoe forestry, Malorita district. This oak is about 820 years of age;
- three Belarus′ oldest beech trees in Malorita district;
- largest plantations of karelian birch and the largest in CIS population of black birch — Ivatsevichi district;
- fir forests of Brest region rank second to no one in Europe in species diversity;
- thermophilic blackthorn, best in Belarus, grows in Brest region, too.