Hello Poland, where the European bison has been brought back from the brink of extinction after the last one in the wild was shot in 1919 in the Bialowieza Forest. This remnant of Europe's primeval forest is now a refuge for bison, bears, wolves and lynx, as well as countless other species, but can nature thrive without our help?
Somewhere in the depths of Poland’s Bialowieza Forest I have taken the wrong path. I thought I was retracing my footsteps to a road, but it suddenly dawns on me that this stretch of trees, underbrush and wild flowers doesn’t look at all familiar.
With a sudden surge of panic I cast around for a recognizable landmark. All I see are huge oaks, elegant beeches, crumbling, moss-enveloped stumps and patches of long grass. A sudden gust of wind stirs the branches and a few leaves drift slowly down to earth. A magpie lets out a mocking chuckle, then silence settles. I fight the urge to go rushing off blindly and try to think where I could have gone astray. After a moment spent composing myself, I decide on a route back through the trees, finally arriving at a wider path after ten minutes.
This seems more hopeful and soon the distant sound of a fast-moving car tells me the road must be somewhere near. Speeding up in anticipation, I don’t notice the three men until I have almost bumped into them. Silently they emerge from a copse of birch trees and one of them raises a hand for me to stop. From their camouflaged jackets and caps – not to mention their holsters and ammunition pouches – I presume they must be border guards.
Here, on the northeastern edge of Poland, we are just a few kilometers from the boundary fence with Belarus and it is not unknown for people to try to slip into the European Union through Bialowieza. The four-hour drive from Warsaw has taken me through villages where head-scarved women herd cows along the main road, where freshly picked mushrooms are sold in lay-bys and where village elders sit on benches watching lorries clatter past on their way to all parts east and west.
Good luck. They hide well.
But that is not at the forefront of my mind as I give an apologetic smile and try out my best Londoner’s Polish. “Dzien dobry. Szukam droga Bialowieza? (Hello. Which way is Bialowieza?)” The leader inclines his head and replies in English: “Over there. Left on the road.” He looks me up and down. “English?” I nod. “Birdwatching?” I shake my head: “I’m hoping to see Zubr (bison).” He nods: “Good luck. They hide well.”
He is right, but the task is made easier if you enlist the help of an expert. The next day I return to the forest, this time in the company of Tomasz Kaminski, a biologist at Poland’s Mammal Research Institute. Guided by Tomasz’s compass, map and seemingly limitless forest knowledge, we move further and further into the thick trees and undergrowth of this long-standing national park in search of survivors of an age when giant mammals roamed the continent. Tomasz, an expert in bison behavior, is weighed down by a heavy-looking, hand-held aerial that is receiving signals from one of a few individuals that has been fitted with a radio collar. Thanks to this we are gradually homing in on our quarry.
As we push on, Tomasz describes his job. “I spend a lot of time gathering data about the bison – so I’m out in the forest most days. They’re the largest terrestrial animals in Europe and they’re absolutely fascinating creatures, especially as – even somewhere like this – they’re living in a place that’s heavily influenced by people and is a mixture of forest and farmland.”
Suddenly, he stops. “Bison… Bison,” he whispers, pointing towards a stand of sun-dappled beech and maple trees. Even through binoculars I cannot see anything but foliage, tree trunks and shadows. Then something moves. One of the shadows has a tail. A group of five or six bison is grazing among the trees. Despite their massive size, standing at least two meters at the shoulder, measuring around three meters long and weighing around 800kg, they are almost silent and their dusty grey flanks provide near-perfect camouflage among the trunks.
Every time I see them I’m amazed
We watch in rapt silence for more than ten minutes as the bison gradually move down a gentle slope, before slowly disappearing once again into the forest.” Every time I see them I’m amazed,” says Tomasz reverently. “They were saved from extinction and now they live in freedom in a large European country like Poland. It just shows how flexible they are as a species.”
There are now around 800 bison in the forests here, around 480 on the Polish side of the border and more than 300 on the Belarusian. Things could have been very different, though. The bison came within a whisker of extinction in eastern Europe in the 20th century. Bialowieza was once a royal hunting ground – its name harks back to the ‘white tower’ of a local hunting lodge – and it was a popular venue for the kings of Poland and, later, the Russian tsars.
Those crowned heads viewed the bison as a most desirable quarry and that somewhat dubious honor ensured the species survived for centuries – albeit at a cost that today seems a high one. An aged, grey obelisk on the outskirts of the forest provides a reminder of those times. In swirling, ornate script it records the day in 1752 when a hunt led by King Augustus III of Poland accounted for 42 bison (including six calves), 13 elk and two roe deer.
Tsar Nicholas II was another who enjoyed the thrill of the chase here. He had tracks created that would allow him to speed unheard through the forest aboard a troika, letting him take up a position from which to bring down the unsuspecting wildlife. World War I, however, not only proved fatal for the tsar, it was disastrous for the bison of Bialowieza – which were hunted to extinction by hungry soldiers and civilians alike.
Descended from just seven ancestors
By the early 1920s there were just 54 European bison left in the world. A select few from European zoos were introduced into the national park and their descendants have been here ever since, even managing to survive throughout World War II. But there is an enduring issue that is hard to overcome – a shallow gene pool. The bison here are descended from just seven ancestors.
Returning from my modern version of a hunt, I find out more about the realities of reintroduction from naturalist Dr Krzysztof Niedzialkowski, whom I meet at the quiet, modern headquarters of the Mammal Research Institute in Bialowieza village. “That low genetic diversity could have a negative effect,” he says, “so we have to monitor the situation regularly and try to diversify the population as much as we can.”
One way of doing that may be by expanding the bisons’ range so that, instead of one big population, there are a number of separate groups. Such a move helps guard against disease, an outbreak of which could be disastrous among such a genetically similar population. “In winter, the bison are fed with hay at various places in the forest – it’s a tradition that dates back around 300 years,” says Krzysztof. “It helps ensure the animals eat well in winter, but we end up with large concentrations of bison that provide potential for the spread of parasites and disease. It can also contribute to more aggressive behavior.”
As many as 50 animals are shot each year
And there is another controversial issue associated with feeding the animals in winter. It makes survival easier and that can lead to an excess of numbers. Rare as the European bison is, the park authorities feel they have to enforce a cull – and that means as many as 50 animals are shot each year, a practice that is strongly questioned by many, outside the park authorities. After all, it is an animal more rare than the black rhino. Those carcasses are then used for meat and fur, but, argue some ecologists, the forest ecosystem would benefit if nature was allowed to take its course, not only in selecting which animals should die, but also in leaving their bodies to sustain other species – foxes, wolves and others – especially during the winter months.
To gain some more insights on the issue I talk to Staffan Widstrand, award-winning photographer and a founder and managing director of the mass communication initiative, Wild Wonders of Europe. Staffan is focusing increasingly on re-wilding initiatives and how these can be successfully achieved. “As human beings we’re obsessed with the management of nature; thinking that if we don’t manage it things will go terribly wrong. But we should be treating nature more like an adult, not like a sick child.”
“For an example, you need only look at the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine and Belarus. There are an amazing number of large herbivores there now; nature seems to be doing quite OK on its own without any management from people.”
And Chernobyl is not the only place in the region where human tragedy has brought an unexpected benefit for nature. Some 470km south of Bialowieza, on the border with Ukraine and Slovakia, Poland’s Bieszczady National Park owes its origins to the forced resettlement of many of its ethnic Ruthenian inhabitants by the Soviet authorities in the years immediately after World War II. In 1973 the area was officially designated a national park and today measures around 30,000 ha, with a further 30,000 ha of managed forest on its borders.
“It’s pretty much the only place in Europe with the full range of species – if you exclude the two that are extinct – the aurochs [wild cattle] and the tarpan [wild horse],” says Staffan. “The wildlife is incredible: wolf, lynx, bear, bison, moose, red deer and roe deer all live there.”
Legal hunting and poaching is a problem
For all its diversity, though, the current situation at Bieszczady also raises some issues regarding the wider possibility of rewilding in Europe. The park borders on to national parks in Ukraine and Slovakia and in both of these legal hunting and poaching is a problem. On the Polish side – as at Bialowieza – there is also officially sanctioned hunting to limit populations of herbivores. Staffan says: “What typically happens is that in winter the animals move down from the higher altitude national park area to the managed forests where it isn’t as cold. Then they run a high risk of being shot as part of a policy to keep down numbers.”
For ecologists such as Staffan such a philosophy seems ill-founded at best. “Forestry managers at Bieszczady say they have the ‘optimum’ number of animals in their forests. They’ve decided that’s four deer per hectare – if there are more than that they start eating the young trees and if there are more than 10 they start eating bark – which can kill fully-grown trees. But perhaps their ecological role is exactly that – to kill trees and to create a more open, less wooded landscape.
“It’s part of a wider problem in Europe generally. Many national parks are managed by state forestry companies so many of the people involved have a forestry background. To them, protecting a forest means protecting trees. For an ecologist a forest is an eco-system that includes animals and dead trees. If the animals bring down trees ultimately to create a mosaic of woodland and grassland then that’s fine.”
The bison, for example, though now associated with dense forest, has only been forced into such areas to escape the activities of mankind. Says Staffan: “These animals are serious grass eaters and there is not much of that within an old-growth forest, so they go out into neighboring farmland in search of it and that doesn’t make the farmers very happy.”
The challenge is to find such places in Europe
In a bid to avoid such issues, the national park authorities at Bialowieza have considered corridors of habitat complete with feeding stations that lure the bison to alternative areas of forest. But in the end, the only real solution may be to create large, open, wild grassland areas in which large herbivores can live in extensive social herds. The challenge is where to find such places in Europe. Bialowieza ecologist Krzysztof Niedzialkowski says: ‘“Bison aren’t always seen positively by neighboring communities and occasionally there are problems. We have had cases of individual animals moving into inhabited areas and becoming more and more accustomed to people.”
One bison, he adds, began approaching cows in farmers’ fields and was responsible for some minor attacks. Ultimately, the animal had to be shot. Environmentalists such as Krzysztof would like to see the area of Bialowieza national park increased, to allow for more wildlife-friendly management and boost the area’s tourism potential. Such ideas, however, may not be well received by local communities who believe their access to the forest might be reduced and forestry jobs may be lost.
Both Polish and Belarusian forests are part of the same Unesco World Heritage site and the long-term hope is that a larger, zoned park could be created with separate areas primarily dedicated to wildlife, commercial forestry and recreation. That still leaves one problem, however. Currently, the border fence that divides Poland – not to mention the rest of the EU – from Belarus runs straight through the forest, splitting it in two and separating two populations of bison that, combined, would have more genetic diversity. That fence is unlikely to come down any time soon.
For now, the way to enter Belarus – provided your paperwork is in order – is via a pedestrian crossing manned by serious-looking soldiers with red stars on their berets. A few hundred meters away from the gate there is little to suggest I have changed countries or political systems. The forest is every bit as impressive as on the other side of the border; huge fungi sprout from fallen tree trunks and ferns grow in abundance around pools colored an almost psychedelic green by algae and moss. During World War II, this area became a base for Polish and Soviet partisans, who would attack German army supply lines and then disappear among the trees. A merciless war was fought here and occasional memorials to its victims provide a reminder that the area was not always as tranquil as it is today.
Bialowieza is popular with bird watchers
Entering a clearing I disturb a family of wild boar, the adults a surprising shade of black, the piglets a lighter, dappled brown. With a remarkable turn of speed they are gone almost before I have time to register their presence. Overlooking the scene is a tall wooden tower that offers a useful vantage point. In this perch it is easy to see why Bialowieza is so popular with bird watchers. A group of goldfinches, with yellow flashes on their wings and bright red faces, chatter noisily in a nearby ash tree; pink and black long-tailed tits bob through the lower branches and a duo of buzzards circle away to the west.
Up here it is hard to imagine that the vast majority of the forest has been actively managed for at least 100 years. But there is an exception to this rule. One strictly protected area on the Polish side, though, measuring 4,747 hectares, has remained virtually untouched throughout the centuries. This fragment is perhaps all that remains of the primeval lowland forest that once covered vast tracts of Europe. It has an ecosystem to match, with wolves, red deer, lynx, elk and beaver all present – as well as numerous smaller creatures.
Back in Poland some hours later, and comfortably positioned in the restaurant of the modern Hotel Bialowieski, I meet Mateusz Szymura, a national park ranger. As we each demolish a steaming bowl of solyanka – a traditional soup made with salted ham, sausage, cabbage and carrots and garnished with sour cream and dill – he explains more about this primeval survivor. “The forest has existed here for 10,000 years – since the last Ice Age,” he says. “Then, in the medieval period, when many areas were being cleared for farming – this place became a royal hunting ground. The bison was declared a species that only kings could hunt. In those days, the kings of Poland also controlled Lithuania and this area was a good stopping off point between their courts in Krakow and Vilnius.”
After a second course of pierogi (small dumplings stuffed with minced pork) and a Zubr beer – its green, white and gold label adorned by the image of a bison – we take a hike from the village, past meadows that are rapidly transforming into birch woods, towards the immense trees that mark the tract of truly ancient forest. Inside, it is easy to imagine the age of some of the trees by the sheer size of their trunks, while the thick canopy brings with it a crepuscular shade and thick, moss-cloaked branches, slowly rotting, sprawl across the ground. “People are often surprised by how untidy the forest looks,” says Mateusz, “but a fallen tree is home to perhaps 1,000 species. When it was living that same tree housed maybe 100. So you shouldn’t really call it dead wood, it’s still living.”
The forest is far from impenetrable
Full of life and darkly mysterious it may be, but the forest is far from impenetrable. The ground cover is nowhere near as thick as I expected – and for obvious reasons: deer and wild boar eat seedlings and shrubs, and the spreading leaves of those giant trees cuts off sunlight from reaching the ground. The only time the canopy is breached is when one of the giants falls. And therein lies a subject for discussion, adds Mateusz. The strictly protected area where we are standing forms but a tiny fragment of the larger national park that lies within an overall tract of forest covering 150,000 hectares – 62,500 in Poland, 87,500 in Belarus. Commercial foresters often have a different understanding of what constitutes good practice than national park wardens.
This debate has in recent years surfaced in the shape of what to do with a creature called the bark beetle, Dendroctonus micans, which, while it may look insignificant, can over time bring down a 50m-high spruce tree. Conventional forestry wisdom involves either felling infected trees and quarantining areas of forest or introducing a predatory beetle called Rhizophagus grandis to provide a biological solution to the problem. If you are preserving a forest as a primeval relic untouched by humanity, however, you cannot offer up solutions that involve chainsaws and alien species. “The bark beetles are part of the natural process,” says Mateusz. “Yes, they will kill some trees, but they won’t kill them all – that’s not in their interest. Also – and very importantly – when an old tree falls, it opens up a big gap where young trees can flourish – ultimately helping the forest regenerate. The beetles are part of nature – there’s no such thing as a pest here.”
The afternoon sun is painting the foliage a mellow, golden hue and all is quiet in the forest, the silence broken only by the sound of faintly rustling branches. Suddenly, not very far away, a red deer begins to roar out a challenge – a deep, throaty growl that sounds as if it could belong to some sort of fierce primeval creature.
I am glad my friend knows these paths and trees so well – it might not be a good idea to lose your way.