Is Poland's Bialowieza forest accommodating to tourists at the expense of losing its special charm?


When you visited the primeval forest of Bialowieza on the Polish Belarussian border a few years ago to see European bison roaming in the wild, you couldn't expect to stay in a luxurious hotel, because there weren't any. Now Bialowieza has a dozen of new hotels, with new tourist facilities springing up all the time. But according to some, who cherished this place that seemed stuck in a time warp, Bialowieza may now be more comfortable to visit, but at the expense of its special charm.

The call of the European bison, the reason why everyone comes to Bialowieza national park. Located in the north-east of Poland, it was established in 1921 with the aim of protecting the last natural primeval forest preserved on the European continent. Filled with thousands of species of animals (including its most recognized symbol - the European bison), it's a heaven for nature-oriented tourists and scientists studying the natural processes that have long been transformed in other European woodland areas. For centuries the Bialowieza National Park has been used as a royal hunting ground. It was possibly the world's first forest protected by law, back in the 15th century. Deputy Director of Bialowieza National Park, Bogdan Jaroszewicz explains why.

"The national park itself has an area of 10,517 hectares, but the Bialowieza forest is the first massive on the border between Poland and Belarus, and that's 62,000 hectares on the Polish side and 87 on the Byelorussian side. This forest is inhabited by over 20,000 species of animals. We estimate that we have about 4,000 species of fungi and over 1,000 species of plants. This place is unique because the economical processes are unbroken for thousands of years. Such processes usually were broken by a logging of the forest in the rest of Europe over a few hundred years ago. So that, as well as the big number of these species, is what makes this place very unique."

Most of those precious species are insects as Bialowieza forest is known for insects developing in dead wood and big old trees. That's not what normally happens in other European woodland areas, where logging and clearing of deadwood is standard procedure. However, the unquestionable symbol of the Bialowieza primeval forest is the European bison.

"The bison is a very unique mammal that was saved by workers of the national park and scientists. It was brought back to nature here in the Bialowieza forest. For a long time it was the only place in the world where European bison were still roaming. And now in Poland we have about 800 of these species and five places where they live in free conditions."

Is it difficult to breed them?

"Yes, because they need quite large areas and a very careful approach."

Most parts of this forest are accessible to tourists, and environmentalists point out, logging companies, only the core area of 5000 hectares, being on the World Heritage Site, is protected. While Polish European bison breeders boast of their success in bringing the species to life from near-extinction, there are those who say that this Poland's most precious nature reserve is not free from dangers. Since the onset of the free market, logging companies have decimated trees in Bialowieza Forest, while environmentalists are warning that the uncontrolled influx of tourists, and the rapid development of infrastructure, may make the situation even worse.