National park “Belovezhskaya Pushcha” remains unique place on the planet
Autumn has stayed far longer than usual, seeming to endure in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha even until early December. The leaf-covered ground is hard with frost but there’s no snow yet, although the grey sky hovers low over the hornbeams and forest mist. All is silence.
“I doubt whether we’ll be able to photograph animals in the wild,” our guide tells us. “They haven’t come to eat yet…”
It seems that winter is defined not by the calendar but by the aurochs, who only gather at the feeding platforms when the true cold weather arrives. They remain hidden from the eyes of people until then, regardless of Father Frost and the Snow Maiden being in residence.
Road map for aurochs
There’s no doubt that foreigners associate Belarus with majestic auroch herds. With great effort, it’s been possible to create the second largest herd worldwide. This is proving a double-edged sword, since there are currently more of the gentle giants than the Pushcha can feed, taking into account the other hoofed inhabitants. Europe’s most ancient forest has a delicate eco-system, so much money is spent annually on providing supplementary fodder — funded by the state and the national park, from its tourist and timber revenue.
The aurochs remain on the Red List, although their number is growing, and they can be unruly, destroying crops if allowed to roam too freely. Farms can hardly shoot them to prevent such damage! Meanwhile, the beasts have a specific diet, which is hard to fulfil in the cold season. Pushcha staff lay out more than a thousand tonnes of hay and silo, beet and salt each winter, attracting the herds to specific locations. From there, it’s easy for tourists to admire them, and some are kept in open-air cages. Visitors can even buy vegetables to feed bears and aurochs. People used to bring bread, but this obviously isn’t the most nutritious option. November was so warm that wild animals had no need to visit feeding platforms, finding food still plentiful among the trees, but winter should creep in through December.
The Deputy Director General for Research at the Belovezhskaya Pushcha, Vasily Arnolbik, notes that sums spent on the aurochs have risen annually, with lucerne, rape, barley, oats and root crops grown especially for their consumption in specific areas and new feeding platforms constructed.
Contemporary aurochs can’t survive without people, emphasises Pushcha’s senior researcher Alexey Bunevich. Besides fodder, they receive vitamins and general medication to keep them healthy. The latter can be a problem, since the herd is descended from just seven animals. Inter-breeding has led to a narrow gene pool and lower disease resistance.
The optimum number for the National Park is 300-350 animals, which is 100-150 fewer than at present. The question is what to do with the ‘extra’ aurochs. The Pushcha’s new department for auroch studies was recently created to implement the first stage of the national plan to preserve aurochs in Belarus and ensure their rational use. Some have already been sent to live in new habitats: the Nalibokskaya Pushcha, the Pripyat National Park, and in forests in Osipovichi, Borisov and Grodno. This year, a farm in the Vitebsk Region bought ten of the beautiful creatures.
Today, most of the 1,156 Belarusian aurochs live outside the Pushcha but they have found new homes in Yaroslavl, Karelia and the Orel Region of Russia. Resettling outside the country’s borders can be problematic but is being aided by a Union State project: supervised by the Centre for Bio-Resources at the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus and by the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
In October, the Pushcha gathered scientists from Belarus, Russia and Poland, eager to discuss the Union State programme entitled Creating the Optimum Natural Habitat for European Aurochs, to Guarantee Long-Term Preservation (Auroch Road Map).
If we fail to take the problem seriously, in 100-200 years’ time, European auroch herds may disappear from Belarus and Russia, due to overpopulation.
Between 2014 and 2018, the programme envisages much teamwork, explains Mr. Arnolbik. “We plan to look at aurochs’ genetics more deeply, creating a centre to preserve and study them. We need to conduct research and select the best animals for breeding with other populations, including in Russia and within the Pushcha, since not all of them see each other.”
Event of world significance
This year, the Pushcha’s Diploma of the Council of Europe was extended for five years, as of late March, thanks to a decision by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. It, thus, keeps its protected status. Having initially received the Diploma in 1997, it is now the most titled natural site on the European continent, receiving UNESCO World Heritage status in 1992 and bio-sphere reserve status in 1993. Sadly, its Diploma was suspended in 2007, when the Council of Europe requested that certain recommendations be carried out to ensure biological diversity. Much has now changed for the better, with the appointment of new director Alexander Buryi.
Visiting the Pushcha as a tourist is one thing but, of course, scientists see the site from a different perspective. In fact, the Pushcha has almost doubled in size — from 30.7 thousand to 57 thousand hectares. Over 70 percent of its territory has reserve status and enjoys unique biological diversity. Only those parts very close to settlements are excluded from restrictions.
In fact, the Diploma of the Council of Europe does not bring any financial preferences, being only a title of recognition of merit in wildlife protection. However, it confers prestige on the whole country.
Happy birthday, fairy tale
Time passes quickly and this December marks the 10th anniversary of the Pushcha’s Father Frost Residence, where children gather wide-eyed and people come to celebrate birthdays. In addition, the first wedding occurred in September, when Father Frost’s home was transformed into a registry office for a while.
In January, the estate will welcome its millionth visitor. Father Frost and the Snow Maiden meet a great many children’s groups every day of course. Various parts of Father Frost’s home have been renovated, in honour of this year’s celebrations. The 150 year old Christmas tree has new decorations and the magic towers are shining a little brighter, being covered in more lights. Meanwhile, Baba Kargota has come to live alongside Father Frost and the Snow Maiden. Mother Winter now has her workshop and the Museum of Ice life has opened. There is a magical versta [an obsolete Russian unit of length, approximately 1.07km] and magical sign, as well as an avenue of fairy-tale glory.
Mr. Arnolbik admits that they’ve had a few scares with their beautiful Christmas tree, which began to dry up. With some help, new greenery is now growing. The 43m beauty is the perfect place to make a wish and, as everyone knows, such wishes come true!
The New Year will bring new tasks, including returning several areas of the Pushcha to their original marshland state: Diki Nikor and Zubritsa. In addition, ditches are being given attention, to ensure good drainage, and the APB-Birdlife Belarus Public Association is undertaking work. Timber harvesting is taking place over the next couple of years and our Belarusian satellite has now finished taking photos from space, allowing analysis of the forest’s structure in 2014. A new programme governing the trees will then be set for 2016-2025.
An interesting international project began this autumn: a Belarusian-Polish-German summer school for students, hosted by the Bialowieski National Park (Republic of Poland) for those studying wood specialities at high schools in Eberswalde, Belostok and Minsk. Next year, our Pushcha will organise a similar event.
There’s no doubt that our reserve has many plans, large and small. Returning from the Pushcha, it’s hard to answer enquiries as to how we feel about this amazing site of wild natural beauty. Besides being an invaluable treasure, it is a place of spiritual strength, whatever the season.
By Valentina Kozlovich
Pushcha will not endure vanity
[b]National park “Belovezhskaya Pushcha” remains unique place on the planet[/b]Autumn has stayed far longer than usual, seeming to endure in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha even until early December. The leaf-covered ground is hard with frost but there’s no snow yet, although the grey sky hovers low over the hornbeams and forest mist. All is silence.