History of the Bialowieza Forest and Park

The antiquity of the Bialowieza National Park dates back to the 14th century when restrictive hunting was introduced in Bialowieza forest. It rose in stature as a protected area when King Sigismund the Old, issued a decree whereby, a person will be liable for punishment if he killed a wisent (European bison) within the forest premises. The forest has derived its name from the hunting manor that he constructed then.

Such measures to protect the wisent fetched the forest its status as a hunting reserve in 1541 AD and the peasants living in the wooded area took on the responsibility of protecting the wisents in return for tax exemption.

However, the haloed existence of the wisent in the Bialowieza forest came under threat after the partition of Poland when Tzar Paul turned over the forest dwellers to foreign courts as slaves. Thus the forest became a haven for poachers and in a matter of 15 years, the number of wisents fell from 500 to lees than 200.

In 1801, Tzar Alexander I reinstated the reserve rules and engaged a small number of peasants to protect the wisents. Through their efforts the wisent population rose in number to 730 by the 1830s. However, the November Uprising saw the participating peasants being removed from their posts and once again, the fate of the wisents became uncertain.

In 1860, on the orders of Alexander II, who visited the forest, protection laws on the wisents once again came into force. Animals, which preyed on the wisents such as wolves, bears and lynxes were hunted down.

Once the Russian Tsars took possession of the forest in 1888, Bialowieza forest and its natives again faced the struggle for survival. Not only did the forest become a hunting ground but also wisents were being sent to various foreign courts as gifts.

In 1915, during World War I, the Germans went in for large scale hunting in the Bialowieza Forest. By September 25th of that year, when a law was laid down which forbade hunting within the reserve premises, about 200 wisents had already been killed. Still the hunting continued till February 1919 when Poland recovered the area. However, by then the wisent population was already extinct.

The hub of the Bialowieza Forest was declared a National Reserve after the Polish-Soviet War in 1921. During this period, only 54 wisents were to be found all over the world, but none in Poland. Therefore, in 1929, four wisents were bought by the Polish government and in order to ensure their safe breeding, the whole of the Bialowieza Forest was declared a National Park.

The step proved fruitful and by 1939, Bialowieza National Park could boast of a wisent population of 16.

The division of the Bialowieza forest between Poland and Belarus came after World War II ended and the Polish side of the National Park was reopened in 1947.

The National Park made its way into the World Heritage List in 1992 and gained recognition as a Biosphere Reserve under UNESCO'S Man and the Biosphere Program in 1993.