Bialowieza Forest, Poland

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Białowieża National Park.

Geographical Location

Bialowieza Forest (52° 41' 55" - 52° 59' 15" N, 23° 43' 10" - 23° 56' 30" E) is a World Heritage Site located in north east-central Poland on the border with Belarus in Bialostockie administrative region, 62 kilometers (km) south-east of Bialystok and 190 km north-east of Warsaw. The park is bounded by the Hwozna and Narewka Rivers to the north and west , respectively, Belovezhkaja Puscha National Park, Belarus to the east, and national forests to the south. The park belongs to Boreonemoral biogeographical province.

Date and History of Establishment


caption Map of Bialowieza Forest. (Source: American University)


  • 14th century: limited hunting rights were granted throughout the forest;
  • 1538: first record of legal protection;
  • 1541: declared as a hunting reserve;
  • 1557: establishing a board governing the forest usage;
  • 1639: another record of legal protection under "The Bia?owieza Royal Forest Decree" (''Ordynacja Puszczy J.K. Mo?ci le?nictwa Bia?owieskiego'');
  • 1801: reintroduction of the forest protection (after ~15 years of intensive hunting);
  • 1860: reintroduction of the protection of European bison (Bison bonasus);
  • 1921: Puszcza Bia?owieska was declared a National Reserve, as a forestry 'preservation';
  • 1929: reintroduction of European bison (Bison bonasus);
  • 1932: designated a national park;
  • 1944/47: reestablishing the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park and Bia?owieza National Park;
  • 1976: internationally recognized as a Biosphere Reserve under United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) Man and the Biosphere Programme;
  • 1979: inscribed on the World Heritage List and extended in 1999.

Bialowieza Forest forms a transboundary park with Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park which was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1992 and designated an International Biosphere Reserve the following year.

The entire area of eastern Europe was originally covered by virgin forests similar to the Bia?owie?a Forest. People traveled along river routes until the 14th century; roads and bridges appeared much later. Limited hunting rights were granted throughout the forest in the 14th century. In the 15th century the forest became a property of Polish king W?adys?aw II Jagie??o who used the forest as a food reserve for his army marching towards the Battle of Grunwald. A wooden manor in Bia?owie?a became his refuge during the 1426 plague. The first recorded piece of legislation on the protection of the forest dates to 1538 when a document issued by Polish king Zygmunt Stary (Sigismund I Old) instituted the death penalty for poaching a wisent (European bison). He also built a new wooden hunting manor in Bia?owie?a, which became the namesake for the whole forest.

The forest was declared a hunting reserve in 1541 for the protection of wisent. In 1557, the forest charter was issued, under which a special board was established which examined forest usage. In 1639 Polish king W?adys?aw IV Waza (Wladislaus IV) issued the "Bia?owieza Royal Forest Decree" (''Ordynacja Puszczy J.K. Mo?ci le?nictwa Bia?owieskiego''). The document freed all peasants living in the forest in exchange for their service as royal hunters. They were also freed of taxes in exchange for taking care of the forest. The forest was divided onto 12 triangular areas (''stra?e'') with a centre in Bia?owie?a. Until the reign of Polish king Jan Kazimierz (John II Casimir) the forest was mostly unpopulated. However, in the late 17th century several small villages were established for development of local iron ore deposits and tar production. The villages were populated with settlers from Masovia and Podlachia and many of them still exist.

After the Partitions of Poland, the Emperor Paul I of Russia turned all foresters into serfs and handed them over along with parts of forest which they lived in to various Russian aristocrats and generals. Also, a large number of hunters entered the forest since all protection was abolished. The number of wisents, European bison (Bison bonasus), fell from more than 500 to less than 200 in 15 years. However, in 1801 the Emperor Alexander I of Russia reintroduced the reserve and hired a small amount of peasants for protection of the animals. By the 1830s there were 700 wisents. However, since most of the foresters took part in the November Uprising (500 out of 502), their posts were abolished, leading to a breakdown of protection.

The Emperor Alexander II of Russia visited the forest in 1860 and decided that the protection of wisents must be reintroduced. Following his orders, locals killed all predators: wolves, bears and lynxes. In 1888 the Russian Emperors became the owners of all of primeval forest. Once again the forest became a royal hunting reserve. The Emperors started sending the wisents as gifts to various European capitals while at the same time populating the forest with deer, elk and other animals imported from all over the empire. The last major emperor's hunt took place in 1912.

During World War I the forest suffered heavy losses. The German army seized the area in August 1915 and started to hunt for the animals. During the more than three years of German occupation, more than 200 kilometres of railway tracks were laid in there in order to ease the industrial development of the area. Three lumber-mills were built, in Hajnówka, Bia?owie?a and Gródek towns. Until September 25, 1915, when an order was issued not to hunt in the reserve, at least 200 wisents were killed. However, German soldiers, poachers and Soviet marauders continued the slaughter until February 1919 when the area was captured by the Polish army. The last wisent was killed just a month earlier.

After the Polish-Soviet War in 1921 the core of Puszcza Bia?owieska was declared a National Reserve. In 1923 it was discovered that only 54 wisents survived the war in various zoological gardens all around the world - none of them in Poland. In 1929 a small herd of four wisents was bought by the Polish state from various zoological gardens and from the Western Caucasus (where the wisent was to become extinct just several years afterwards). To protect them, most of the forest was declared a national park in 1932.

The reintroduction proved successful and in 1939 there were 16 wisents in Bialowieza National Park. Two of them come from the zoological garden in Pszczyna, they were direct descendants of a pair of wisents from the Puszcza Bia?owieska given to Duke of Pszczyna by Emperor of Russia Alexander II in 1865.

In 1939 the local Polish inhabitants were deported to remote areas of the Soviet Union and they were replaced with Soviet forest workers, later in 1941 the forest was occupied by Germans and the Soviet inhabitants were also deported, as Germans had planned to create there the biggest hunting reserve in the world. Since July 1941 the forest became a refuge for both Armia Krajowa (Polish Underground Army) and Soviet Partisans. German authorities organized mass executions of people suspected of aiding the resistance movement. In July 1944 the area was liberated by the Red Army. Withdrawing German Army, the Wehrmacht, demolished the historic Bia?owieza hunting manor.

After the war a part of the forest was divided between Poland and the Belarusian SSR of the Soviet Union. The Soviet part was put under public administration while in the Polish part the Bia?owieza National Park was reopened in 1947.

Belovezhskaya Pushcha was protected under Decision No. 657 of the Council of People's Commissars of the Soviet Union, on October 9, 1944; Order No. 2252-P of the USSR Council of Ministers and Decree No.352 of the Byelorussian SSR Council of Ministers, September 16, 1991.

The Reserve was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1992 and internationally recognised as a Biosphere Reserve under UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme in 1993 (the Polish part had been so designated in 1979).


The Bialowieza Forest is a total of 10,501 hectares (ha), with 4,747 ha designated as a Strict Nature Reserve. This is contiguous to Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park (87,600 ha), Belarus, in the east. An extension of 5,186 ha to the World Heritage area has been proposed, on the Polish side.

Land Tenure

The Forest is state owned.


147 meters (m) to 172 m.

Physical Features

Situated on the hydrological divide between the Baltic and Black Seas, and lies in the drainage basin of the River Narewka, a tributary of the Narew. Most of the water is drained by the River Orlowka, and the remainder by the Rivers Narewka and Hwozna. The area is covered by the central Poland glacial formation with deposits composed of deep sands, sands overlying clays (40%), and clays and loams overlying the Cretaceous bedrock (35%). Other major deposits are organogenic formations of peat and marshy peat which occur in river valleys and local depressions which often contain raised mire systems.


Bialowieza Forest experiences a temperate continental cool climate, where mean annual precipitation is 641 millimeters (mm) and mean annual temperature is 6.8 degrees Celsius (°C). Average temperature in January is -4.7°C and in July 17.8°C. Snow cover persists for an average of 92 days per year.



caption Strict Preservation Area of Bialowieza Forest. (Source: Bialowieza Forest official website)


The national park is situated in the central part of an extensive forest complex (1,250 square kilometers (km2)) with 113 plant associations in the Polish area of 57,000 ha. This includes forest stands which show characteristics of primeval forest, a unique fragment of lowland natural forest in this part of Europe. Within the national park there are 20 forest associations, four communities of water plants, two shrub communities and 13 communities of peat bogs and meadows. Within the strict preservation area there are 632 species of vascular plants, constituting about 29% of the flora of Poland. All the major forest associations found in this part of Europe occur, some being represented by East European forms, such as Tilio-Carpinetum communities whilst others by Central European forms like Querco-Carpinetum. In addition to the 35 shrub species present, dominant tree species include Picea abies, P. silvestris, Carpinus betulus, Tilia cordata, Alnus glutinosa, Quercus robur, Acer platanoides, Fraxinus excelsior, Betula pubescens, B. verrucosa and Populus tremula . There is an absence of beech, yew and larch.


caption Oxalis acetosella - in the past a salad spice. (Source: Bialowieza Forest official website)


Brushwood associations on the peat soils are composed mainly of Salix cinerea, Betula humilis and Pinus silvestris. Meadow associations and aquatic communities also occur. Rare plant species include Pedicularis sceptrum carolinum, Salix myrtilloides, Betula obscura, Isophyrum thalictroides, 12 Orchidaceae, Saxifraga hirculus, Lathyrus laevigatus and Hedera helix (here at its eastern range). Some 632 vascular plant species have been recorded, of which 443 are native and the remainder being anthropogenic introductions. There are also 254 lichen species, 80 liverworts and more than 3,000 fungi.



caption Residents of bog landscape. (Source: Bialowieza Forest website)


There are 54 species of mammal including European bison Bison bonasus (EN), grey wolf Canis lupus and lynx Felis lynx, otter Lutra lutra, beaver Castor fiber (LR) (re-introduced in 1955), northern birch mouse Sicista betulina (LR) and masked shrew Sorex caecutiens (the only known population in Poland), as well as elk Alces alces (uncommon). Common mammals are red deer Cervus elaphus, roe deer Capreolus capreolus and wild boar Sus scrofa. The park is the site of a successful re-establishment of European bison Bison bonasus (exterminated in Bialowieza Forest in 1919). Reintroduction was initiated in 1929 in a fenced reserve which forms part of the park. In 1952 this effort was extended by reintroducing bison into forest areas outside the fenced reserve. At present 300 bison range freely on the Polish side, and 240 on the Belarus side. Beaver Castor fiber has also been reintroduced successfully.


caption European bison is the largest mammal in Europe. (Source: Bialowieza Forest website)


There are some 232 species of birds recorded in the Bialowieza region, 120 of which breed in the park and include capercaillie Tetrao urogallus, black stork Ciconia nigra, crane Grus grus, most European owls including pygmy Glaucidium passerinum and eagle owl Bubo bubo, a large number of raptors such as spotted eagle Aquila clanga (VU) and booted eagle Hieraeetus pennatus, three-toed woodpecker Picoides tridactylus, white-backed woodpecker Dendrocopus leucotos, redwing Turdus iliacus, nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes and red-breasted flycatcher Muscicapa parva. Approximately 8,500 species of insects have been recorded including the beetles: Carabus menetriesi, Orthothomicus longicollis, Pytho kolwensis, Boros schneideri. Twelve species of amphibian and seven reptile species have also been recorded.

Cultural Heritage

A total of 184 burial sites from the 11th and 12th centuries have been found. There are also numerous primitive bee-keeping sites.

Local Human Population

The village of Bialowieza is located 1 km from the core of the park. No human settlements are present in the strict preservation area.

Visitors and Visitor Facilities

There are about 95,000 visitors annually, 30% of which visit the strict preservation area where access is limited to guided groups. Trained guides are provided by the tourist offices and are assigned to individual tourist groups and youth excursions, in accordance with park management. Guided trips are allowed to use traditional horse drawn vehicles.

Scientific Research and Facilities


caption Narewka river runs through the park. (Source: Bialowieza Forest official website)


The park has been used for scientific research since the 1920's when Professor Paczoski, a prominent botanist and phytosociologist, was appointed as the first manager of the park. Results of his research are included in Forests of Bialowieza (1930). Zoological studies, especially on wood-boring insects, began in 1929 by Professor Jerzy Karpinski, Professor Paczoski's successor, and were extended by Professor Dehnel. The park staff are currently carrying out work on the structure of the forests, ecology of bison and entomology. In addition, seventeen scientific institutions are carrying out research in the park. The park facilitates studies on structure and functioning of natural ecosystems, natural succession, and the flow of substances and energy within ecosystems (as well as observing human impacts on these processes), the circulation of parasites in natural and modified ecosystems, classification of animals (especially of lower systematic units), forest management, biological control of pest insects, genetically valuable ecotypes of indigenous tree species, and the improvement of forest productivity. There are five research institutions located in Bialowieza: Natural Forests Department of the Forest Research Institute field station (established in 1930); Mammal Research Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences (1954); Bialowieza Geobotanical Station of Warsaw University (1956); Plant Demography Laboratory of the Institute of Botany of the Polish Academy of Sciences (1980); and the Laboratory on the Ecology and Protection of Natural Habitats (1991). There are permanent study plots, some established in 1936, for the study of forest dynamics. The Museum of Nature and Forestry is managed by a custodian.

Conservation Value

Comprises a vast stretch of ancient, virgin, palaearctic forest, which, in comparison to other lowland European forests, has endured little human disturbance. In addition the site contains many relic plant and animal species, typical of lowland primeval forests.

Conservation Management

The park area consists of a strict core zone (4,747 ha) and a protective zone (276 ha) around the village. Here activities such as clear felling, hunting and the use of insecticides are banned. Access is limited to research and guided visitors, all motor vehicles are banned. The 'Hwozna' Protective District covers an area of 5,155 ha. It comprises of a mosaic of old growth forest stands, including conifer species that are not represented in other areas of the park. This is surrounded by a 1 km wide forest buffer zone to the north-west and south. A zone of 275 ha is used for breeding bison and wild horse of forest tarpan type, in the south-western part of the site. Palace Park is the headquarters of the park, located near the village of Bialowieza, outside the strict protected zone. The zone extends over 47 ha, and focuses around a former Russian hunting manor. Other facilities on the site include a nature education center, museum and tourist lodges.

Management Constraints

The main threats are air pollution, the impact of tourism, trampling (vegetation and soil damage), the introduction of alien invasive species, a railway line near by that carries harmful chemicals and the disturbance of water regimes by land reclamation in contiguous Belarus forests, to create a reservoir on the Narew River some 12.5 km from the park. According to Wesolowski, the strictly protected National Park only covers 8% of the total forest area. Commercial logging is allowed in the surrounding forest complex, and there are fears that the remaining old-growth stands will have disappeared within the next ten years.


A total of 109 employees, over fifty percent have university qualifications within forestry or protected areas management. A major activity involves management of bison at the restoration center, and management of free-ranging bison, as well as manning the research laboratories, museum and technical department.


4,339 million zlotys (1998).

IUCN Management Category

  • II (National Park)
  • Biosphere Reserve
  • Natural World Heritage Site - Criterion iii

Further Reading


A bibliography by Karpinski and Okolow contains over 2,100 references on Bialowieza up to 1966, one by Okolow contains over 1,100 references published 1967-72. These are available through the MAB National Committee of Poland.

  • Borowski, S., Okolow, C. (1988). Birds of the Bialowieza Forest. Acta. zool. Cracow. 31,2: 65-114.
  • Cieslinski, S., Tobolewski, Z. (1988). Lichens/Lichenes/of the Bialowieza Forest and its western Foreland. Phytocoenosis, Bialowieza, suppl. NS. 1. 216 pp.
  • Czubinski, et al. (1973). Nature Reserves in Poland. 528 pp. Cracow.
  • Falinski, J.B., et al. (1968). National Park in Bialowieza Forest. Warsaw.
  • Falinski, J.B. (1986). Vegetation dynamics in temperate lowland primeval forest. Ecological studies in Bialowieza Forest. W.Junk.Dordrecht. 537 pp.
  • Gawlowska, J. (1978). Wykaz prac naukowych proxadzonych aktualnie w polskich rezerwatach biosfery Chronmy Przyrode Ojezysta R. 34 z. 3. Pp. 74-85.
  • Karpinski, J. (1930). Puszcza Bialowieska i Park Narodowy w Bialowiezy.
  • Karpinski, J.J. (1948). Bark beetle's fauna against a background of trees appearing in Bialowieza Forest. Res Inst No 49.
  • Karpinski, J.J. (1949). Material to bioecology of Bialowieza Forest. Res Inst No. 56.
  • Karpinski, J.J. (1954). Birds in biocenosis of forest in Bialowieza National Park. Res Inst No. 120.
  • Karpinski, J.J. and Okolow, Cz. (1969). Bibliography of the Bialowieza Forest. Warsaw.
  • Krasinski, Z. and Raczynski, J. (1970). Bison in Bialowieza Forest.
  • Kawecka, A. (1994). Strict Nature Reserve of the Bialowieza Forest . Bialowieza. 32 pp.
  • Krasinski, A.Z. (1993). Bison a relict of ancient times. Bialowieza. 20 pp.
  • Matuszkiewicz, W. (1952). Forest communities in Bialowieza Forest . Ann Univ MCS. Sklodowska. Lublin, suppl. 6.
  • Obminski, Z. (1955). Research on forest habitat climate in Bialowieza National Park. Res Inst No. 141.
  • Okolow, C. (1976). Bibliography of the Bialowieza Primeval Forest, 1967-1972. Bialowieza. 164 pp.
  • Okolow, C. (1983). Bibliography of the Bialowieza Primeval Forest, 1973-1980. Bialowieza. 190 pp.
  • Okolow, C. (1986). The Bialowieza Primaeval Forest - the pearl of European forests. PARKS 11: 2-3.
  • Okolow, C. (1991). Bibliography of the Bialowieza Primeval Forest (1981-1985). Bialowieza. 197 pp.
  • Okolow, C. (1994). Bialowieza. In: Breymeyer, A. (ed). Biosphere Reserves in Poland. Pp 68-76. ISBN: 838690271X.
  • Okolow, C. (1994). Monuments of material culture in the Bialowieza Forest , Bialowieza. 31 pp.
  • Olszewski, J.L. (1986). The role of forest ecosystems in modifying local climate of the Bialowieza Primeval Forest. Ossolineum, Warsaw. 222 pp.
  • Paczoski, J. (1930). Forest of Bialowieza, Poznan.
  • Pachlewski, R. (1960). The Bialowicza National Park. State Council for Conservation of Nature. 25 pp.
  • Reklamowo, A. and Grzegorczyk, W.A. (1997). Biosphere Reserves in Poland. Polish National MAB Committee, Warsaw. p71-97
  • Sokolowski, A. (1987). Parki Narodowe i Rezerwaty Przyrody 4: 2.
  • Sokolowski, A. (1981). Flora of the vascular plants of the Bialowieza Forest . Fragm flor. et geobot 27: 1-2.
  • Szafer, W. (1920). Project for the setting up a forest reserve in Bialowieza Forest. Sylwan No. 10-2.
  • Tomialojc, L. et al. (1984). Breeding bird community of a primeval temperate forest (Bialowieza Forest , Poland). Acta orn. 29: 3.
  • Wesolowski, T (1997) Bialowieza Forest World Birdwatch 19(2): 12-15.
  • Wloczewski, T. (1952). Soils of Bialowieza Forest . Res Inst No. 83.
  • Wiecko. E. Wostepach Puszczy Bialiowieskiej. 205pp. with illustrations, maps, English summary.
  • World Heritage Site Nomination (1978)
  • World Heritage Site Nomination (1998)



Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC). Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.





M, U. (2011). Bialowieza Forest, Poland. Retrieved from


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