Belovezhskaya Pushcha celebrates 600th anniversary of its reserve status.
It’s hard to imagine what would have become of this most ancient European forest if, in 1409, Polish King Jagailo (then owner of the Pushcha) had not adopted a decree allowing only two people to hunt large animals on its territory: himself and his cousin, Lithuanian Duke Vitovt. Six centuries ago, guards restricted entrance and logging in the forest.
Hunting was carried out to provide the union’s army with meat during the Battle of Grunwald and reserve status was attributed to the Pushcha. Only a privileged few were permitted to hunt, with local residents only allowed to kill smaller animals. This gave the chance to preserve the Pushcha’s unique flora and fauna.
October 3rd was a momentous date for the Pushcha, with famous politicians, and members of the business and artistic elite of Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland and Germany in attendance. About 5,000 guests arrived. The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, also visited the most titled reserve of Europe.
Forest story. The forest is unique in Europe, having been used for royal hunting in the 18th-19th century; even today, it continues to amaze us with its pure air, pine smells, century old oaks (the oldest is 650 years old) and, of course, its aurochs…
It has always offered a corner to rest and entertain. Moreover, the Pushcha is a venue to discuss important international problems. The fates of large states have been decided there. However, in becoming famous, it has suffered tragic and irretrievable losses…
In the 17th century, its uruses (like the aurochs) were made extinct. According to the Director General of the National Park, scientists have been able to restore their appearance from archive documents. It’s awful to imagine today’s aurochs meeting the same fate. After the occupation of 1914, the Germans began to intensively fell trees, constructing saw-mills and laying over 300km of a narrow-gauge railway. In two and a half years, they took millions of cubic metres of timber to Germany and, as a result, the aurochs almost disappeared from the Pushcha. The last female animal was killed in 1919. It was only owing to the international community’s efforts that the gigantic animals were restored to the forest and, by 1939, they numbered almost two dozen.
In September 1939, the Pushcha became part of the BSSR and, on December 25th, the Belarusian State Belovezhskaya Pushcha Reserve was established. However, the reserve status did not save the unique forest from felling. On the eve of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), up to a million cubic metres of timber a year was permitted to be felled within the Pushcha. The war interfered with those grand plans however. Hitler’s closest companion-in-arms, German Goering, visited it before the war and decided it should become an exclusive spot for the Reich’s top officials to hunt. In December 1941, the forest became their hunting area and dozens of nearby villages were razed to the ground, their residents murdered or sent to Germany.
In 1945, the Pushcha was split; its western part (where aurochs were bred) was passed to Poland.
In Soviet times, heads of the state often hunted in the forest — including Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and top foreign guests. Their attention contributed to the preservation of the Pushcha’s rich flora and fauna and it regularly received budget financing to organise biotechnical events.
The Pushcha is now as well-known as Africa’s Victoria Falls, the South American Amazonian forests and Russian Lake Baikal. About five hectares of its territory — where ancient plants have been preserved — were included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1992. Five years afterwards, the reserve was awarded a Council of Europe Diploma — acknowledging it as a model nature reserve on the continent.
“We must do everything possible for the Pushcha to deserve the high titles with which it has been honoured,” the Belarusian President noted at recent jubilee celebrations. “Each new meeting with the forest should gladden our souls with love for our homeland and its wonderful landscapes — part of which is carefully preserved via this ancient and unique forest. It is our legacy. Like the Japanese who are obliged to climb Mountain Fuji at least once in their lifetime, each Belarusian should visit the Belovezhskaya Pushcha at least once.”
After Belarus’ declared independence, the Pushcha received its original border, by Presidential decree. As in 1976, the forest comprises a single complex, with 62,000 hectares belonging to Poland and 167,000 to Belarus.
Tourist future. Annually, about 300,000 tourists visit the Pushcha, which ‘remembers’ Polish kings, Lithuanian dukes, Russian emperors, Hitler’s invaders and general secretaries. Ecologists come here to study plants and animals while history lovers are attracted by Viskuli Residence where, in 1991, a well-known agreement was signed to break up the USSR. On New Year’s Eve, the forest is visited by children eager to see Father Frost’s Residence. Meanwhile, 80 percent of the reserve’s profits are generated from its economic activity, rather than from tourism. As yet, there are insufficient services for the latter. Pleasingly, the problem is being solved, with results expected in the near future.
By the time of its jubilee, the Pushcha had received its own emblem and was greatly changed. A new administrational building had been constructed, alongside a library and a three-star hotel with a conference hall and two swimming pools. The former Nature Museum has become a fashionable restaurant, while an ecological-Educational centre has opened to provide diverse information. The centre is equipped with a modern multimedia system, enabling visitors to feel as if they are standing in the middle of a dense forest; you hear the sound of wind, the roar of animals and birds singing, recreating the real atmosphere of the Pushcha.
Additionally, the staff’s living conditions have changed. Br20bn have been invested to develop Kamenyuki village, where most live. It is a unique ‘gate’ to the forest.
However, the most pleasant surprises for tourists still lie ahead. During the celebrations, Alexander Lukashenko noted that the National Park would be guarded from excessive development: cars will be soon prohibited on its territory. The reserve will be open only to cyclists and pedestrians, with electric transport for those who cannot walk. Additionally, construction works will be prohibited within the reserve; hotels, camp sites, lodges, shops and cafes will only be allowed along its borders. A unique social-ecological ring is to be offered to investors, who’ll be able to receive land on privileged terms.
Other pleasant news (embracing not only the Belovezhskaya Pushcha) is that, from January 1st 2010, five percent of Belarus’ Nature Protection Fund’s savings will be set aside for the development of reserves.
Specially protected territories now occupy eight percent of Belarusian territory, with almost two million hectares belonging to reserves and national parks — about 1,500 in total. Our abundance of primeval forests allows us to breathe easy in Belarus. Ecological tours are now gaining popularity, including among foreigners, with the Belovezhskaya Pushcha topping the list. It is the reserve of 2009, according to UNESCO and is known worldwide, yet continues to harbour secrets. These will be further unravelled by future generations, who’ll receive this unique forest safely from us.
By Lilia Khlystun