Into the Primeval Bialowieza Forest of Poland
Updated: Aug 12, 2020
When you walk into a forest, a sense of calm and serenity always washes over you. While your eyes absorb the greenery and dappled sunlight, your ears pique at the rush of the breeze and the crackle of leaves beneath your feet. Stepping into the Bialowieza Forest was no different. What makes Białowieża unique, however, is that it is a forest complex consisting of some of the last parts of several primeval or old-growth forests. This means large parts of Białowieża are nearly untouched, guarded by strict protection that has truly allowed nature to thrive. The forest, as a whole, sits on the Polish-Belarusian border so to take a peek at what lies hidden within it, we visited the Bialowieza National Park on the Polish side.
The Bialowieza Forest is one of the best-preserved mixed forests across the European lowlands. It is home to a diverse array of life that takes shelter under the canopy of green that towers overhead. With the trees in the forest aged tens and even hundreds of years old, standing beneath them is a humbling reminder of how small we humans are. While this is true, from a different perspective, we too loom over even smaller creatures not only found in Bialowieza life but also its death. In its most strictly protected areas, 25% of the forest's tree mass is dead biomass, the perfect habitat for over 12,000 invertebrates and countless unique species of fungi.
Apart from being a safe harbor for countless species of the smallest of life, however, Bialowieza Forest also protects birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals including elusive lynxes, wolves, deer, and moose. The forest is moreover the habitat that rehabilitated the population of Europe's heaviest animal, the European bison, which would otherwise have only existed in captivity or become completely extinct.
Quite like the American bison on the North American continent, European bison once roamed across Europe in great numbers. Due to human settlement, they were pushed to the edge of survival with only a small group in Russia and a larger population of a few hundred in Bialowieza remaining by the 20th century. However, following World War I, the Russian bison had disappeared and German soldiers had poached all of Bialoweiza's bison. The last few bison which remained in captivity were quickly ushered into a breeding program in 1927, and in 1952, the first bison were finally returned to the forest. There are now hundreds of them in Bialowieza and though they are still slowly recovering, there are 3,000 of them worldwide today.
The pristine Bialoweiza Forest is a result of centuries of historical protection as well as modern efforts that allow it to continue thriving. The forest's role as a guarded reserve dates back to the 15th century when Polish kings decreed it as royal hunting ground where cutting down trees was banned. In the 17th to 19th century, Bialowieza became the private property of the Russian Tsars where those caught hunting bison faced the death sentence. Unfortunately, Bialowieza Forest lost its protection amid the wars of the early 20th century but the damage it endured has thankfully turned around as the forest was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1970s.
Bialowieza is now overflowing with biodiversity and protected more than ever, but it still faces looming threats including climate change and logging. Hopefully, now in the 21st century, we can be the next wave of defenders for Bialowieza and especially for other natural wonders that have not been as fortunate as this primeval forest.