Bialowieza National Park

Bialowieza (pronounced Bee-o-VEE-zha), part of a forest complex reserve of 578 square miles(1,500 km2) located on both sides of the border between Poland and Belarus, is renowned as the place where European bison were saved from extinction. It’s one of the world’s great conservation stories, not dissimilar from that of American bison—most numerous hoofed animals ever known, brought near extinction in a few decades by relentless, pointless slaughter.

These two massive animals half a world apart are physically similar. European bison—also called wisents—slightly bulkier at 2,200 pounds (1,000 kg), forage in and around forests rather than on the grassland plains of American bison. Despite their size (nearly six feet/2 m at the shoulder) they can easily jump over a six-foot (2-m) fence and charge at 30 miles an hour (50 kmh). Once they ranged through ancient woodlands from the Atlantic Coast to China Seas and were depicted in ice-age paintings. Forest clearing across Europe forced them back to this dense glade where they were culled by royal hunting parties until early 20th-century wars and revolutions. Huge additional forest areas were cleared then and World War I saw decimation of all wildlife.

The last wild bison was shot by a poacher in the Caucasus in 1923. Luckily, enough had been given to zoos and private collections to re-form a viable European breeding nucleus which then was saved by an unlikely protector during World War II—Hitler’s chief deputy, Herman Goering, who, aping past royalty, wanted them for his private hunting preserve. A small herd reared by Polish scientists was released back into the wild in 1952. It has thrived and now a stable herd of 300 is here (500 altogether counting those on Bialowieza and its Belarus equivalent) with animals beyond the land’s carrying capacity being reintroduced elsewhere.

Birdlife prospers too in this protected tract which has been called the most valuable natural area in the European lowlands—altogether some 251 (177 breeding) species. Woodland types thrive in the ancient 460-square-mile (1,200-km2) primeval oak, hornbeam, and pine palearctic forest of Belovezhskaya Pushka, dating back to 8,000 BC, shared across the border with Belarus (formerly Byelorussia of the USSR). For moisture-oriented species, its location in the watershed of the Baltic and Black Seas encompasses one of Europe’s prime inland wetlands.

Nine kinds of woodpeckers including white-backed, gray-headed, black, and three-toed,hammer on tree trunks towering hundreds of feet high, some of them several hundred years old. Eagles, including lesser spotted and booted, prey on smaller birds and mammals as do goshawks, pygmy, Tengmalm’s, and eagle owls, black kites, honey buzzards, and white-tailed eagles, which will prey on even large geese. Every habitat possibility is used. Great overturned tree roots are nest sites for robins, blackbirds, dunnocks, song thrush, and mice.

Marshes can be alive with clouds of white-winged and black terns, booming bitterns, trumpeting common cranes, secretive corncrakes, and marsh warblers, which have no song of their own but good memories, carrying on 45 minutes straight mimicking those of 70 other species. Red-breasted and collared flycatchers feast on some of 8,000 species of insects attracted to glades, swamps, and river meadows, with more than 1,200 kinds of plants, including more than 500 flowering species.

Lanky Polish elk graze on lush tangles of water foliage. Wild boar families led by bulky patriarchs rip up black soil to get at underground roots. Gray wolves and lynx slip between trees usually unseen except briefly by their victims, though small but quick and fierce martens, ermines, and badgers often elude them. River otters pursue two dozen varieties of fish. European beavers,once extinct here, now fell saplings for dams and lodges, having reintroduced themselves over the Belarus border to the other 60-some mammal species. (Shy park mammals can be difficult to spot, however, in deep woodlands.)

Climate is temperate-cool, with an average 92 days’ yearly snow cover between December and mid-March. Best times are spring and golden autumn (summer’s insect clouds and density of forest glades can make wildlife-viewing difficult). Administrative and tourist facilities are in Bialowieza Village on the park boundary, where guides can be arranged, also horse-drawn carriages. Park headquarters has excellent bilingual booklets. Special permits for entry to core areas are available from the national park office for serious researchers—but hundreds of miles (km) of surrounding forest are generally available for riding and hiking through permits available from the nearby forest service.

The Bialowieza Glade, where a palace was built for the tsar in the19th century, now is the area’s tourism center with wildlife exhibits,museum, hotels, and restaurants, also access to trails and campsites. Threats include air pollution, tourism impact from traffic, trampling of rare plants, also disturbance from land reclamation in contiguous Belarus forests to create a river reservoir.


Among other notable Polish reserves are:

Babiogorski National Park on the Babia Gora continental divide, with lynx, badgers, foxes, wildboars, wolves, occasional brown bears, and 120 bird species including wood grouse, hazelhens, and nesting great eagle owls.

Biebrzanski (aka Biebrza River) National Park (pronounced Bee-EB-zha) in northeast Poland’s Biebrza Valley, huge wetland stopover or home to 270 bird species, including battalion ruffs, great curlews, spotted eagles, aquatic warblers, black grouse, great snipes, whooper swans, marsh owls, Montagu’s harriers, jack snipe, ferruginous ducks, white-winged terns, black storks, many others, including great numbers of common cranes. Its importance, noted by the Ramsar Convention, cannot be overstated—it’s estimated that its loss (threatened by woodland encroachment) would mean loss of 40 percent or more for some of these species, which can fill the skies and marshes in spring migration late March to mid-May (perhaps 2–3,000 ruffs and 100 black-tailed godwits in a single flock) and only a little less so in fall, peaking in October. It’s home as well to large numbers of roe deer, beavers, otters, wolves, and Polish elk which close their nostrils to feed on underwater marsh marigolds. Park offices have maps, bilingual literature, and information on trails and lookout towers.

Bieszczady National Park in the eastern Carpathian Mountains, a U.N. World Biosphere Reserve with some 200 rare and spectacular floral and faunal species—marsh helleborine, gentians,sundews, splendid brown bears, European bison, lynx, European wildcats, wolves, roe deer, endemic Hucule ponies (descendants of primitive mountain horses), golden and lesser spotted eagles, Ural owls, alpine accentors, and hedge-sparrows, many others. Some 84 miles (135 km) of well-marked, accessible trails. Closest tourism center is Ustrzyki Gorne.

Gorczanski National Park with parts of the Carpathian primeval forest with Carpathian stags, roe deer, red foxes, wildcats, nesting eagle owls, Ural owls, black grouse, black storks, ring ouzels.

Kampinos National Park bordering Warsaw in central Poland, with peat bogs, also dunes covered with primeval pine forest, where beavers, lynx and Polish elks were successfully reintroduced. On a bird migration route, it also has black and white storks, nesting spotted eagles, honey buzzards, goshawks, and rare plants (martagon lilies, pasque-flowers).

Karkonoski National Park in the Karkonosze mountains protects 89 Polish Red Book rare species including mountain sheep, black grouse, alpine accentors.

Magurski National Park with brown bears, wolves, lynx, roe deer, rare golden eagles, hazel grouse, interesting reptiles and amphibians (spotted salamanders, mountain newts, fire-bellied toads).

Narwianski National Park, between Bialowieza and Biebrza National Parks, protecting ecosystems of the winding Narew River—“the Polish Amazon”—with 33 mammal species and 150 breeding birds, many rare elsewhere in Europe.

Ojcowski National Park with deep canyons, white limestone cliffs, varied flora and fauna (numerous bats in cliff caves), plus 600 butterfly species. Park headquarters is Pieskowa Skala, a Renaissance castle.

Pieninski National Park with Dunajec River Gorge, one of Europe’s most beautiful, with lynx, wild cats, wolves, 14 bat species, great Parnassian Apollo butterflies (white wings decorated with black lines, red spots), river rafting.

Poleski National Park protecting swamps and peat bogs, ermine, otters, elk, beavers, wolves,146 bird species including Montagu’s and hen harriers, aquatic warblers, redshanks, great snipes.

Slowinski National Park, 20 miles (33 km) along the Baltic coast with forest, lakes, bogs,beaches, shifting sand dunes up to 185 feet (56 m) high with unique desert ecosystem—255 bird species, some in large numbers (great crested grebes, mute swans, 20,000 pairs of black-headed gulls).

Tatrzanski National Park in Tatra Mountains with high-elevation flora and fauna including chamois, marmots, brown bears, lynx, eagles.

Wielkopolski National Park, nine miles (15 km) south of Poznan with beautiful forested lakes and uplands, home to red and roe deer, wild boars, nearly 200 species of nesting and migratory birds, 50 miles (80 km) of hiking trails.

Wigierski National Park in the northeast with more than 40 lakes, six rivers, 200-year-old woods, home to wolves, lynx, roe deer, elk, wild boars, black storks, white-tailed eagles with six-foot (2-m) wingspans.

Wolinski National Park on a coastal island with spectacular cliffs, some 300 bird species including shelducks, swans, terns, grebes, kites, sparrowhawks, goshawks, nesting white-tailed eagles, spectacular stag beetles (Europe’s largest), and a small bison reserve.

Hulking European bison, once one of the most numerous hoofed animals the world has known, roamed ancient forests from the Atlantic coast to China Seas. Clearing and over-hunting brought them to the brink of extinction. They were saved in a conservation story similar to that of their U.S. plains’ cousins, American bison, their recovering numbers conserved during World War II by an unlikely protector: a Nazi aide of Adolf Hitler. Now they graze peacefully in Poland’s Bialowieza forest and elsewhere.

Hulking European bison, once one of the most numerous hoofed animals the world has known, roamed ancient forests from the Atlantic coast to China Seas. Clearing and over-hunting brought them to the brink of extinction. They were saved in a conservation story similar to that of their U.S. plains’ cousins, American bison, their recovering numbers conserved during World War II by an unlikely protector: a Nazi aide of Adolf Hitler. Now they graze peacefully in Poland’s Bialowieza forest and elsewhere.

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Babiogorski National Park

Biebrzanski National Park

Bieszczady National Park

Gorczanski National Park

Kampinos National Park

Karkonoski National Park

Magurski National Park

Narwianski National Park

Ojcowski National Park

Pieninski National Park

Poleski National Park

Slowinski National Park

Tatrzanski National Park

Wielkopolski National Park

Wigierski National Park

Wolinski National Park