Hunting of King Jagiello
Hunting of King Jagiello.
Figure from the book
"Belovezhskaya Pushcha"
by Georgiy Kartzov

The history of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, the oldest reserve in Europe, dates back to times far behind us. For the first time, the area was mentioned as a primeval forest in the Ipatievskaya Chronicles, published in 983 (Kochanovsky & Korochkina, 1976). The Kievskiie Chronicles indicate that the territory of the present-day Pushcha was at that time populated by a tribe called the Yatviagi. Their main occupation was hunting and fishing. In the XIIth century, Vladimir Monomakh resided in Pushcha for longer periods and in 1276 Prince Vladimir Volynsky built a fortified town called Kamenetz. From the late XIIIth until the early years of the XVth century, the Great Lithuanian Principality of Troiden, Keistup and Jagiello ruled the Pushcha. In the year 1386, the governments of Lithuania and Poland united and thus Belovezhskaya Pushcha became under supervision of Poland. Shortly after this change strict rules for the protection of wild animals were declared by the ruling Polish kings Sigizmund I, Stefan Batori and August III, the successors of Jagiello. These kings turned the Forest into a place for sumptuous hunting activities. So far the forest did not yield any revenues, but in the middle of the XVIth century 4 iron-smelting factories were constructed within the Forest area. It was the time that King Sigizmund August ruled the area. In the factories pitch was being extracted, tar was distilled, charcoal was scorched and attempts were made to float timber as well.

In 1795, Belovezhskaya Pushcha became part of the Russian territory. Its surface was equal to 120 thousand dessiatine (the old Russian area index close to 1 hectare) in those days. The Russian Empress Catherine II paid very little attention to the destiny of the unique forest and she has granted a big part of the forest for her retinues subjugated these lands (Earl Rumyantzev, Fieldmarshal Michael Kutuzov, Colonel Drenyakin, etc.). The year 1881 brought one of the most dramatic fires in the history of the Forest. Parts of the forests kept burning from May until October as a result of an extremely long and severe period of drought. The first notable survey and inventory of the forest was carried out in the years 1842 to 1847, which lead to the subdivision of the forest into a network of separate compartments and exploitation roads. A second inventory was conducted in 1861 and 1862. From these years date the first reliable and complete sources on the natural resources of Belovezhskaya Pushcha.

As in earlier centuries, Pushcha remained to be a vast hunting ground for noble tsars that reigned the country. Therefore all possible measures were taken to favor conditions for game (animals considered interesting objects for hunting). Game existed mainly of wild ungulates. On the purpose of stimulate the growth of the number of game in the forest tsar Alexander I issued an edict which banned hunting of European bison in 1802. Starting 1809 regular inventories of the total numbers of the population of European bison were carrying out. Hunting eventually led to the local extinction of game. In 1705, the last Red deer died in the forest. The population was replenished in 1864 through introduction of specimens from Germany. In 1888, Belovezhskaya Pushcha became a direct property of the imperial family, after which the conditions of the forest and game were altered once again favoring the royal hunting activities. Within one year after this legal change in ownership, the construction of a huge imperial residence and holiday site was brought to action - serving the needs of the tsar, his family and his court. The royal palace was built in the year 1894 in the village Bialowieza, which is nowadays still situated in Poland. The construction of the railway between Hajnowka and Bialowieza was carried out in order to offer the royal and imperial people a more convenient travel through the forest than the sandy road could provide. Splendid hunting parties were organized and literature mentions especially exiting event in the years 1897, 1900, 1903 and 1912. Although great numbers of animals were killed during these hunts, the number of ungulates went up quickly. It was a result of strict measures for the protection of wild animals, which included an interdiction of hunting by people, such as locals, who were not involved in official activities. In the year 1907, Belovezhskaya Pushcha covered a territory of 126 thousand hectares, which were home to over 11 thousand specimens of wild animals of the species of European bison, Red deer, Roe deer and Fallow deer, and over 10 thousands examples of cattle as well. The forest, incapable of offering sufficient food for this great number of inhabiting mammals, suffered as well as the animals themselves. Initially "overgrazing" of natural feeding grounds lead to a necessary impoverishment of quality of fodder available to the mammals and, as an inevitable consequence, considerable degradation of the populations of animals occurred as well as steady outbreaks of diseases and worms (helminth) struck the populations.

Photo from the State Archive of
Moscow of cinema-photo-documents

Trees in the forests of Belovezhskaya Pushcha were cut in all centuries. However, the rate and intensity by which trees were removed from the forest has varied, but in general tended to increase. In the year 1839, for example, no less than 3000 impressive Oaks and Pines of the age of an impressive 350 to 400 years old were felled and taken out on demand of the Navy Department in order to build ships. These trees were specially selected and were very straight and of excellent quality. Three thousand workers were involved in order to be able to execute the felling of those Oaks with a history of a number of centuries. Nearly 13,000 Pine trees of the highest quality were cut down serving the economic incentives of a trade house called "Tompson and Bonar" in 1845 - 1848. This act of massive felling was described with indignation in the newspaper "Bell" by A.I. Gercen and N.P. Ogarev.

In total, about 45,000 large trees were harvested in Pushcha between 1849 and 1854, while 174,000 trees were taken out for foreign trade in the period 1845 to 1857. The most intensive cuttings were executed early in the XXth century. During the First World War (1915 until 1918) the territory of the forest was occupied by German troops. This period is locally in general known as the time, in which commercial exploitation of the natural resources of the forest were most intense. The German occupation built an expanded narrow-gauge railway with a total length of about 300 km in order to efficiently remove the harvested and valuable timber of primeval quality and four saw-mills have been constructed to process wood from the logged trees. During only two and half years 4.5 million cubic meters of mostly high to excellent quality of timber was exported from Pushcha in Germany. This volume is comparable to the volume of timber harvested during all previous centuries (5 million cubic meters)! After the war came to an end the Polish authorities managed Pushcha. However, the intensive use of the Pushcha's forest resources has not been moderated. In the years 1927 and 1928 a British company called "Century European Timber Corporation" (or more commonly "Century") harvested and removed wood from Belovezhskaya Pushcha, for which the company was contracted by the Polish government. During these years 1,947,000 cubic meters of timber was harvested. However, in 1930, the Polish government cancelled the concession contract, by paying their penalty, as "Century" had infringed the relevant rules for cutting trees. Although the contract had been terminated the practice of large scale clear cutting was continued. For instance, in the years 1934 and 1935, 1,208,000 thousand cubic meters of timber was removed from Pushcha and sold. As result, to this time in aggregate about 20% of the surface of Belovezhskaya Pushcha had been completely cleared of her trees.

The First World War caused serious casualties for wildlife. By the year 1919, European lowland bison became extinct in Belovezhskaya Pushcha, its last remaining natural site of occurrence in those days, and Fallow deer was exterminated as well. The number of Red deer and Wild boar had been dramatically reduced. It was in those years that people committed to the ultimate destiny of nature blossomed out to start vigorous activities. Thus, the first actions were initiated to preserve the European bison from complete extinction. At the International Congress of Nature Protection, the Polish delegate Jan Shtolzt offered to restitute the total lack of European lowland bison across Europe's wildlife. After the Congress the bison-breading center near Bialowieza village was established. 6 European bisons were gathered from private farms and zoos in order to start the restoration of a vital population of the species, of which only very few captive specimens were still alive. At the beginning of the Second World War 19 heads of European lowland bison inhabited the breeding center near Bialowieza.

In the history of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, the management approaches and owners have varied through time. Periodically Belovezhskaya Pushcha was treated as a strictly protected area, but in other times it was under (heavy) exploitation of the products of the forest (trees, fruits and game). The approach was connected to the interest and predilection that her governors owned. But during all centuries, Belovezhskaya Pushcha remained to be governed as an entire forest and has preserved remarkably well.

Belovezhskaya Pushcha has been protected as a vast natural site since the late XIVth and early XVth century when King Jagiello declared the Pushcha to be a protected territory, while he privileged himself as well as his brother Vitold rights of hunting in the forest. Preservation of Pushcha was favoured thanks to the presence of the European bison. The desire to keep this species in Europe prompted at first Lithuanian princes, then Polish kings and, still later, Russian tsars to protect this forest with zeal and determination against human depredation. At first in the year 1557, the Polish King Sigizmund August issued a forest edict, according to which cutting standing trees, either in full live or dead, was prohibited without a special permission. The King signed such permissions by himself. Then, in 1640, King Vladislav IV has issued an edict forbidding to cut green live trees and sanctions were placed on those who attempted to do so anyway. In 1802, an edict was issued for protection of Belovezhskaya Pushcha and preservation of European bison. In 1821, a next edict prohibited harvesting of trees and hunting on game within Pushcha. During the Polish uprising of 1831, these rules were broken. In order to protect the European bison, a specific part of Pushcha, with a stricter regime for its protection, was designed in 1875. In 1897, Czar Nickolai II instructed local foresters to keep the preserved primary character of the forest in optimal condition and he restricted the overexploitation in times when the foresters kept tending to strive for maximum economic profits from the Forest.

Due to economic activity (forest clearance followed by agriculture), the surface of Belovezhskaya Pushcha gradually diminished as a result of the loss of peripheral parts. Nevertheless, since the beginning of VIIIth century, the changes in the territory of Pushcha were limited. In 1921, a so-called Forestry Reserve was erected in the vicinity of the administrative center of Pushcha, the village of Bialowieza. The Reserve covered 4,594 hectares of which 1,061 hectares were strictly protected against any economic activities. The other parts of the Reserve were partially guarded and protected. In 1924, the forest was given the higher rank of Nadlesnictwo (Exceptional Forestry) and since 1929 its entire territory - at that time 4,640 hectares - became strictly protected. The National Park of Bialowieza was erected in 1932 out of the Forestry Reserve, covering now 4,693 hectares. Since then until now the area is under strict protection, while the National Park has been enlarged to 10,502 hectares in 1996. Around the same years, a program was initiated in order to restore a free-grazing population of the European Bison in 1929, while a nursery for the Tarpan-horse was established in 1936. The populations of Red deer, Wild boar and Roe deer restored themselves from the exceptional low numbers by which they were represented after the First World War. However, clear-cutting as a treat to the natural character of the forest was continued, although it was better regulated.

In 1939, Belovezhskaya Pushcha became a part of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and a Belovezhskaya Pushcha State Nature Reserve was established in its territory by a decree of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialistic Republic Council of People's Commissars (No 1234 of 25.12.1939). The entire area of the forest of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, meadows (700 ha), and Svislochskaya forest dacha (summer house's area), covering a total of 129,200 hectares were included within the surface of the Reserve. However, the decree stated a full protection only for the former National Park (4,760 ha), the European bison breeding center (297 ha) and one more restricted territory (297 ha). So, the Reserve practically was imposed a regime comparably to the former Polish Bialowieza National Park and the Reserve was limited by the same borders as well. A decree called "About economic regulation of the Byelorussian Belovezhskaya Pushcha State Reserve" (No 1059 of 27.07.1940) was issued. It provided strict protection of entire Pushcha's territory. Unfortunately, the beginning of a war with fascist Germany on June 21, 1941 interrupted the accomplishment of all of these plans.

The second occupation of German troops during World War II did not lead to intense exploitation of the natural resources of Belovezhskaya Pushcha as the German leader Gering, the closest companion-in-arms of Hitler, initiated the creation of an extraordinary hunting area with the territory of the German Reich where high ranked persons would be allowed to hunt.

After the territory of Belovezhskaya Pushcha was released from the German army the former Nature Reserve of 1939 was once again brought in force by decision of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialistic Republic Council of People's Commissars in October 1944. However, at the establishment of the state frontier between USSR and Poland, a great part of the Nature Reserve, covering 55,000 of hectares together with its historical center, the village of Belovezha (or Bialowieza), the territory of the former National Park and the bison breeding center were allocated to Poland. Belarus still owned 74,500 hectares in Belovezhskaya Pushcha, but within this area there was no true base for research and administrative activities. So these were created once again. A new nursery situated within an area bordered by fences was constructed and Polish partners supplied five European bison, which became the ancestors of the population of European bison in the Byelorussian part of Pushcha. By 1953, the number of mammals in the nursery had increased to 19 individuals and 7 young European bisons were given liberty in the Belarussian Pushcha. The number of European bisons has been augmenting rather steady to a free living heard of between 235 and 315 individuals during the last years.

From 1944 to 1957, Belovezhskaya Pushcha had the status of a State Reserve. However, in accordance with the decree of the Council of Ministry of USSR, the Belovezhskaya Pushcha Nature Reserve was reorganized. It became a State Protected Hunting Ground under state management in August 1957, although the name did not change. The main tasks of the Hunting Ground were to maintain wild animals and to provide hunting pleasure for important visitants (communist's leaders). In a very short period of time, a governmental residence called "Viskuli" was built. It included a guest pavilion, a hotel, a number of cottages and a sauna. Later two artificial reservoirs for hunting to waterfowl birds were created. A great number of constructions for biotechnical activities were set up and beside them shooting towers were located. In short time the number of wild animals, especially all species of deer, had exceeded the optimum 3 to 5 times. Up to 3,500 specimens of each species were living in the forest. It caused the disappearance of undergrowth and a young generation of dominating tree species (pine, oak, ash etc.) as well. As a result, the future of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha Forest became threatened as the structure and species composition of main forest types were seriously altered through this. At that time large-scale drainage reclamation was conducted both inside as well as outside the Pushcha’s forest. This caused a decrease of the ground water level, a serious reconstruction of ecosystems and the weakening of forest stands. Especially stands of Spruce were destabilized. All of these changes stimulated a rapid reproduction of insects, like Spruce Bark beetle, which in great numbers took their increased changes to damage trees.

At the same time, the economic infrastructure within Belovezhskaya Pushcha went through a period of intense development. Fixed roads were constructed along with electrification and the implementation of telephone lines. Various buildings were constructed, like comfortable houses for employees of the State Protected Game Ground, the Nature Museum, a Culture House, a Health Centre and so on. The combination of these activities, with a positive character towards nature and respecting nature, with a strong protective regime and restrictions of the mass access for visitors on the Pushcha's territory ultimately lead to a remarkably positive situation for conservation of Belovezhskaya Pushcha as a protected natural complex.

The Belovezhskaya Pushcha State National Park, the first National Park within the Republic of Belarus, was proclaimed on the basis of and within the boundaries of the former State Protected Game Ground by Enactment No. 352 of the Republic of Belarus Council of Ministers on September 16, 1991.

In 1992, by decision of UNESCO at number 73, the most preserved part of the old-growth forests of the National Park was inscribed on the List of World Natural Heritage Sites (along with Lake Baikal, Amazon rain forests, Victoria Falls, the Far Eastern Valley of Geysers and many other unique natural areas). Belovezhskaya Pushcha became the first site within the territory of the former USSR to be granted such a high status. In 1993, Belovezhskaya Pushcha was given the status of a Biosphere Reserve (UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Program (MAB)). And finally, in 1997, the National Park "Belovezhskaya Pushcha" was awarded a European Diploma for outstanding achievements in nature conservation. In 2012, the Wilderness Protection zone (strict wildlife protection zone) of the National Park was increased by almost 65% of the territory of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha primeval forest (more than 50,000 hectares), and in 2014 the status of the UNESCO’s World Natural Heritage Site was extended to the entire territory of Belovezhskaya Pushcha (instead of 7% before).

Currently, the State Nature Protection Establishment "The National Park "Belovezhskaya Pushcha" is under the jurisdiction of the President’s Affairs Administration of the Republic of Belarus."

* Based on information from the article by Heorhi Kazulka & Vasiliy Zhukov "The State National Park "Belovezhskaya Pushcha" is the oldest Natural Reserve in Europe”, published in the book "Belovezhskaya Pushcha at the Turn of the Third Millennium. Materials of the Scientific and Practical Conference dedicated to the 60th Anniversary of the Formation of the State Reserve "Belovezhskaya Pushcha". - Minsk, 1999. - pp. 16 - 33. (In Russian)
(With some modern data added.)

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