Belovezhskaya Pushcha: a way to scientific and moral devastation...

Alexander SAVARIN, “Mir zhivotnyh” (World of Animals) newspaper, No 8, August 2005

As a member of the newspaper’s editorial staff, I visited the National Park "Belovezhskaya Pushcha". Pushcha has always been in the media spotlight. It’s clear as the unique natural site needs much attention and care. However the news about Pushcha has been turning increasingly gloomy over the last years. In this relation, I wanted to see and analyze everything myself. More so because my last visit to Belovezhskaya Pushcha was as long ago as in the XX century...

The paper's author Alexander Savarin
The paper's author Alexander
Savarin in the Museum of
Nature of the National Park
My meeting with the modern Belovezhskaya Pushcha began in the Museum of Nature. Why in it? The museum funds are of scientific importance to various experts: to some extent everyone can find the answers to questions of his or her interest. I also had scientific interests.

The ground floor of the museum was occupied by stuffed "paralyzed" large mammals including the bison, exhibits of ungulates’ antlers, and a herbarium. To the visitors’ great surprise, the herbarium plants were yellow-brown for some reason, partly broken and without clear attributes of one or another species. Obviously they haven’t been renewed for decades – showcased plant seeds with faded labels in special test-tubes, a chestnut seed eaten by larvae...

A large photo in the corner of the hall caught my attention: a hunter holding a killed lynx in his hands. A caption below read: "The lynx hunting is basically driving in line-man mean..." I couldn’t believe my eyes! The lynx is listed in the Red Data Book of the Republic of Belarus and is featured in its last third edition (the decision of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection No 14 of 06.09.2004). Of course, the photo was taken thirty – forty years ago but the visitors are looking at it today. Imagine a situation: a child visited the Museum of Nature and saw the lynx registered in the Red Data Book hanging in a hunter’s hands like a bag... I suppose such a display of the rare fauna representative is immoral, to say the least.

The story told by a museum guide was catered for primary school children who have never read anything about fauna before... Phrases like "the lynx jumps well from one branch to another" make a strong impression...

I climbed upstairs and got dumbfounded by scenes of... true scientific interest. Exhibits of mice rodents looked grey-white or dirty-grey? covered with some white patina. What species of small Belarusian mammals have such external attributes? I gasped expecting a miracle... Then read: “Red field-vole, yellow-mouth mouse and field mouse...” All are common species found in great numbers in various types of woods and agro-ecosystems. But how do they have such a coloring? Are they mutants? Or maybe a product of experiments by the national park’s employees? Does the forest dormouse actually have a gnawed round tail and the middle common shrew a torn-off leg and trunk? Alas, the answers to these questions are much more common. A century-old dust, clothes-moth and dermestid beetles are destroying the museum funds...

I glanced at the Latin names of the species: there are spelling mistakes and parentheses are wrongly put ... You may ask what difference does it make whether there aren’t parentheses in the Latin names? If scientists who described these species for the first time attributed these species to the same genus as the modern science provides the taxonomy, parentheses are not put. At first sight, it may seem like petty scientific refinements, a triviality. But mistakes of the zoological nomenclature in museums of national parks should be excluded!...

What I saw in the museum next seemed like a scene from horror movies... A hedgehog with front legs on a birch trunk pulling down from it in its teeth some kind of a snake (probably, the grass-snake)! Who on earth has observed the same in living nature? Well, may be a man who got himself intoxicated can have it in his trips... I inquired about the species of the hedgehog that is capable of doing such tricks. It was the common hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus), the hedgehog species the existence of which in the country is still questioned... At the same time, another hedgehog species, the white-breast hedgehog (E. concolor), lives in the area of Belovezhskaya Pushcha. It wouldn’t be bad for the keepers of the museum to know these facts...

I went to look over the collection of butterflies. There were the same features: faded names and crumbled scales from wings. An Elephant Hawk-moth could hardly be identified... It is good that I could see this night moth earlier and knew how it really looks...

I looked at the reaction of some visitors. Many of them could immediately notice the neglected state and in some cases even wretchedness of the exposed exhibits. How the museum’s collection funds have reached such a pitiable condition? Does the museum foster environmental education?

To take care of the collection, there naturally should be appropriate experts like botanists, entomologists, mammologists, taxonomists, taxidermists (to make zoological exhibits) etc. But as a matter of fact they are absent in Belovezhskaya Pushcha today. Of 1600 workers of the National Park there are only about… 10 researchers. Moreover, some of them are too young and have no appropriate work experience. The increase of scientists on staff is not in view for the coming years...

Besides, no competent and scientifically grounded care of Pushcha’s wood riches is possible without appropriate staff of scientists. But how then the administration of the National Park manages daily decision-making avoiding experts’ advice?

I anticipated seeing an example of wise and unique management in Pushcha going next on a guided bus tour of it. I expected the guide would lecture on Pushcha’s many recent problems and how a small group of scientists solved them. I prepared to take notes...

However the speech of the guide was a rich mix of historical remarks and laudatory odes about actions of the park’s administration, political and common anecdotes, and information on ways to treat male’s importance and dandruff... I wished I had a Dictaphone with me since such "performances" would take a worthy place in the TV program "Distorted Mirror"... For instance, the guide informed that ex-presidents Eltzin, Kravchuk and Shushkevich dismantled the Soviet Union, while Leonid Brezhnev was a "humanist" when during a hunt in Belovezhskaya Pushcha he was too lazy to shoot animals that were driven to a shoot area for him. "Well, let them live," the guide quoted the late boss of the communist party. As to Nikita Khrushchev, he held a kennel in Pushcha and was also an inveterate hunter. It was he who ordered to dig out there a whole lake for own pleasure... That is you see he was so bad... And so on and so forth... An “interesting" was the guide’s change from the history to the problems of the modern Pushcha. She reminded the audience about... a Colorado beetle which now consumes even pepper! So should it be surprising after that that bark beetles damage trees everywhere... Therefore Pushcha’s trees are cut down to fight them...

Having sorted out in mind that "meaty" lecture, I came to the conclusion that the guide quite efficiently executed someone's tasks, namely:

  1. The conversation should logically lead the visitor to an idea that Belovezhskaya Pushcha always was a toy in the hands of officials and therefore there is no need to worry about anything: they will decide instead of us;
  2. The visitor should think only of rest and entertainment;
  3. The visitor should not hear anything that would make him or her think...

Thus, the guide’s conversation, thoughtless at first sight, was actually well balanced tactics to avoid urgent and burning problems of Belovezhskaya Pushcha... By the way, after the tour I asked some of the tourists what they liked about it most of all. Their answers? Anecdotes told by the guide... Ponder! People who visited Belovezhskaya Pushcha, which is seriously ill and requires urgent recovery efforts of the scientific community, remembered cock-and-bull stories above all... Is this the ecological education?

Passing on the bus kilometers of Pushcha’s area, I noticed abounded timber-stacks formed from felled tree trunks, mistletoe parasite’s presence on trees, numerous bonfire sites, and separate forest patches looking more like meadows... What the tourists could see from the bus resembled an ordinary timber-harvesting enterprise, not a world famous Belovezhskaya Pushcha nicely sung about by our folklore group "Pesnyary"...

I was struck by a newly laid, about 3 meters wide asphalt road with white marking... What for is a new asphalt road inside Pushcha? Rumors have it the road was specially created for roller skating of VIPs... In any case, it is not for ordinary people... Moreover, those who like Pushcha’s nature and are aware of its problems do not need the road. Other places can be chosen to roller skate...

Our bus pulled up by a giant oak tree. I walked all round the tree and saw a bonfire spot ten meters away, then in the shrubs – bottles from alcoholic beverages ... I finally managed to seize the moment and ask the guide: "Is it really allowed to make a camp fire here?" A "fantastic" answer followed:

- It is strictly forbidden...

- But who does make it?

- Foresters to burn wood-cut remnants... No trouble, nothing will be visible in one year... All will be covered by grass...

What I heard was simply a mockery of Belovezhskaya Pushcha and ecological science, a crying disregard for Belarusian laws...

I walked further along a path and saw… bird houses on trees (the entrance is over 4 cm). What for are they here, in the primeval forest? This is not a country house plot...

We drove up to the famous, so-called “Khrushchevskoe” lake. A long canal stretched close to it across the road... I was overcome with curiosity and once again began to pester the guide:

- What is that canal?

- That is because of Khrushchev...

- But the lake is across the road. What is this?..

- It was dug two years ago...

I stopped to think it over and ask another question but... not a trace of the guide already... She slipped aside...

The canal, which attracted my attention so much, stretched for several kilometers... It’s clear this artificial reservoir has no relation to the long history of Belovezhskaya Pushcha. It is an alien object inside Pushcha’s organism...

The guide said earlier that many wood areas (first of all spruce forests) became dry because of land reclamation carried out in the twentieth century. Therefore the area needs to be turned to a bog again... But excuse me! To carry out this kind of projects within the unique primeval forest, one must draw up a scientific project, discuss it with scientists, arrange for appropriate independent ecological examination, etc. It would be wise to inform the population of the country about the plan of Pushcha’s reorganization and even ratify the decision on that in the Parliament. Only then the risk to make mistakes will be decreased to the minimum. But it has not been done! The canal is a "brainchild" of people in the National Park’s administration who think they have sufficient knowledge and moral right to execute experiments like this with living nature... After all the matter is not about changes of an ordinary tourist site, it is about BELOVEZHSKAYA PUSHCHA – THE PRIDE AND HONOUR OF BELARUS!

At the end of the tour, the guide bid farewell, saying "Have a good summer and few repairs"... I approached her again:

- How many scientists are in Belovezhskaya Pushcha now?

- I do not know, they come and go.

- Can you give an approximate figure...

- Why do you ask me such questions?

- But you are the guide!

- It does not concern me...

The visit to zoo enclosures was interrupted by… a smell of asphalt. Indeed a wide "fresh" road ran into the distance along the open-air cages... What for? Anyone understands that asphalt warmed up in summer emits tens of toxic agents which will harm the viability of the animals living in the cages. Was it really impossible to solve the problem in any other way, avoiding the use of asphalt?

A group of fairly drunk youth was going in my direction. They must have got their doze of "ecological" education...

At the end of my meeting with Pushcha I decided to walk along a forest road – building dust, bottles, fire wood stacks...

I began to think about what I saw only for several hours. Just imagine what one could learn for a week...

Is it really the modern Belovezhskaya Pushcha? The land of our ancestors...

The unique Pushcha is turning more and more to a recreation park, but not a land of culture and wildlife – I could not bring myself to say it. The challenging ecological problems can be managed only by involving the national scientific community. Pushcha urgently needs a developed national program to save it. A wide discussion of the program and its ratification in the Parliament should be arranged for. Scientists, experts and journalists who specialize in ecology should have access to visit all sites of Belovezhskaya Pushcha to get a precise picture on the overall current situation there and straightforwardly inform about it the citizens of the country...

As a biologist with a university diploma, I was instilled with horror after what I saw. The command-administrative way to solve problems of Belovezhskaya Pushcha can result in its complete regeneration...

Alexander SAVARIN, the scientific department


Pictures from the newspaper

(Photos by A. Kalechonok, E. Agibalova, M. Dudarenko have been used)

A hedgehog consuming a snake

A man-made lake within the protected area

Bird houses at the trees within the protected area

Stacks of wood along a tourist path within the protected area