Białowieża Forest, known as Belovezhskaya Pushcha (Belarusian: Белавежская пушча) in Belarus and Puszcza Białowieska in Poland, is an ancient woodland that straddles the border between the two countries, located 70 km (43 mi) north of Brest (Belarus) and 62 km (39 mi) southeast of Białystok (Poland). It is one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primeval forest that once stretched across the European Plain.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve lies in parts of the Brest Voblast (Kamianiec and Pruzhany districts, BE) and Hrodna Voblast (Svislach district) in Belarus and on the Polish side near the town of Białowieża in the Podlaskie Voivodeship (190 km (120 mi) northeast of Warsaw). Białowieża means the White Tower in Polish. The border between the two countries runs through the forest. There is a border crossing for hikers and cyclists. The forest is home to 800 wisent, the continent's heaviest land animals. A security fence keeps the wisent herds physically and genetically separated.
On the Belarusian side the Biosphere Reserve occupies 1,771 sq km (684 sq mi); the core area covers 157 sq km (61 sq mi); the buffer zone 714 sq km (276 sq mi); and the transition zone 900 sq km (350 sq mi); the National Park and World Heritage Site comprises 876 sq km (338 sq mi). The Belavezhskaya Pushcha headquarters at Kamieniuki, Belarus include laboratory facilities and a zoo where wisent (reintroduced into the park in 1929), konik (a semi-wild horse), wild boar, moose, and other indigenous animals may be viewed in enclosures of their natural habitat.
On the Polish side, part of the Białowieża Forest is protected as the Białowieża National Park (Białowieski Park Narodowy), with general area of about 100 sq km (39 sq mi). There is also the Białowieża Glade (Polana Białowieska), with a complex of buildings originally owned by the tsars of Russia, the last private owners of the forest (from 1888 to 1917) when the whole forest was within the Russian Empire. A hotel, restaurant and parking areas are located there. Guided tours into the strictly controlled areas of the park can be arranged on foot or by horse-drawn carriage.
Approximately 200,000 tourists visit the Polish part of the forest annually. Among the group offers are: bird watching with local ornithologist, watching bisons in their natural environment, and sledge and carriage rides with a bonfire. The popular village of Białowieża lies within the forest.
The entire area of northeastern Europe was originally covered by ancient woodland similar to that of the Białowieża Forest. The name, translating as the Forest of the White Tower, appears in the name of village Białowieża on its Polish side, but also in the neighboring town of Kamyanyets (Kamieniec) in the Belarusian section, which features a tower referred to the White Tower (Belaya Vezha). However, the Tower of Kamyanyets built of red brick, was never white. Until about the 14th century, travel through the woodland was limited to river routes; roads and bridges appeared much later.
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 to examine forest usage. In 1639 King Władysław IV Waza issued the "Białowieża royal forest decree" (Ordynacja Puszczy J.K. Mości leśnictwa Białowieskiego). The document freed all peasants living in the forest in exchange for their service as osocznicy, or royal foresters. They were also freed of taxes in exchange for taking care of the forest. The forest was divided onto 12 triangular areas (straże) with a centre in Białowieża.
The Reserve was added to 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 1976). A new attraction in the Belarusian part of the Reserve is a New Year museum and the residence of Dzied Maroz or Ded Moroz ("Grandfather Frost", the East Slavic counterpart of Father Christmas). Thousands of tourists visit this museum.
The Belarusian part of the reserve also became the place where the Belavezha Accords were signed by leaders of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus to dissolve the USSR.
The forest contains a number of large, ancient pedunculate oaks (Quercus robur), some of which are individually named. Trunk circumferences are measured at breast height, 130 cm (51 in) above the ground.
- Emperor of the South. Circumference 610 cm (240 in), height 40 m (130 ft). The tree shows no clear signs of dying.
- Emperor of the North. Circumference 605 cm (238 in), height 37 m (121 ft). The tree has a very regular trunk and shows no clear signs of dying.
- Southern Cross. Circumference 630 cm (250 in), height 36 m (118 ft). At the base of the trunk it has a considerable lesion in the bark on the eastern side. From the mid-1960s its circumference has grown by 65 cm (26 in). The name stems from the shape of its crown, whose main branches evoke a cross (see photo of the crown).
The forest is the subject of a Russian ballad, "Belovezhskaya Pushcha", composed in 1975 by Aleksandra Pakhmutova, with lyrics by Nikolai Dobronravov, performed by Belarusian folk band Pesniary. It is also mentioned throughout Alan Weisman's environmental book The World Without Us (2007), which imagines what Earth would be like without people by looking at actual places that have been abandoned or left alone.
Part of the woodland known as Lipiczansky Forest (Las Lipiczański in Polish) is mentioned in the Oscar-nominated WWII movie Defiance (2008). It was adjacent to the town of Zdzięcioł in the occupied eastern part of the Republic of Poland (now Dziatłava, Belarus) during the Holocaust, the World War II site of the Zdzięcioł Ghetto established by Nazi Germany. In the film, Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe escape into the Belarussian forests, where they join Russian resistance fighters and endeavor to build a village in order to protect themselves and about 1,000 Jewish non-combatants. The film was directed by Edward Zwick, starring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell.