Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Wolves and wisent roam in Poland's Wild East

by Eva Krafczyk, DPA

Bialowieza, Poland (ANTARA News) - You cannot go much further east in Poland than the village of Bialowieza. It lies just three or four kilometres from the border with Belarus, in the middle of the Puszcza
Bialowieska (Bialowieza Heath). Here is Europe's last primeval forest, home not only to fox and hare, but wolves and wisent as well. About 400 wisent or European bison, roam the Polish side of the border alone. It is the largest population of the massive creatures in Europe.

A woodcarving of a wisent's head adorns the gate to what once was a czarist park and palace where Russian aristocrats lived in the 19th century when this part of Poland belonged to the Russian Empire. The palace was destroyed during World War II. In its place now stands the administration building of Bialowieza National Park.

Poland's largest and oldest national park, it celebrates the 85th anniversary of its founding this year.

A natural history museum in the building offers an overview of flora and fauna in the forest. People wishing to see some famous Bialowieza wisent can do so in a small game preserve about four kilometres outside Bialowieza, where there are also elk, stag, roe deer, wild boar and a small pack of wolves.

Bialowieza is small and compact. On Waszkiewicza Street, the main road, nearly all of the houses are built of wood in the traditional style. A Russian Orthodox Church stands at the western end of the street, directly in front of the former czarist park. A Roman Catholic church stands at the other end.

Poles and ethnic Belarusians live side-by-side. The Belarusian families, especially, lovingly tend to country gardens with colourful jumbles of flowers. Sometimes, in front of the village stores, it seems as though time has stood still. Old farmers with weather-beaten faces from the surrounding little villages, and women wearing bright print headscarves, pull up in horse-drawn carriages or sleighs to make their purchases.

Tourists who come to Bialowieza seek mainly quiet, relaxation and communion with nature. Many of the numerous boardinghouses and private lodgings rent out bicycles. Nature lovers can roam through the national park for hours on foot and along bicycle paths with names like "Wolf's Route" and "Hunter's Trace."

But a guide is needed to visit the "protected zone" of the park, which has remained unaltered by human hand for more than 80 years. To preserve its delicate ecological balance, only a limited number of visitors are allowed in daily.

Here stand some of the park's oldest trees, including 400-year-old oaks. When as many as 6,500 tourists stream into Bialowieza, which has a population on only 2,000, on the long weekend at the beginning of May, many will have to stay outside the zone. They can take heart, though - the rest of the park is pretty wild too.

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