The Białowieża Forest is a reminder of how much of Europe must have once looked, one of the last vestiges of the vast primeval forest that enveloped the European plain.
The forest is located in the north-east of Poland, stretching across the border into Belarus. Large sections of woodland on both sides are classified as national parks, providing essential protection to the large variety of flora and fauna to which the region is home.
Białowieża National Park on the Polish side, covering an approximate area of 105 km², is one of the country’s 16 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the only natural area to feature on the list.
The Białowieża Forest has achieved international recognition in recent months. The region made it into National Geographic‘s list of the best trips to take in 2020 – the magazine urging its readers to “discover one of Europe’s last true wild places” – as well as featuring on CNN’s list of the 20 most beautiful places in Europe.
But it has also been at the centre of controversy in the last few years, becoming a battleground between environmentalists and the government. In 2016, the then environment minister, Jan Szyszko, approved a large increase in logging in the forest, ostensibly to combat bark beetle infestation, leading to widespread protests, criticism and legal challenges. The European Court of Justice ultimately ruled against Poland in the dispute, finding it to be in violation of EU environmental laws.
Writing for Notes from Poland in 2017, Tom Diserens, a biologist living in the region, explained “the story and science” behind the battle to protect the forest.
There are in fact around 60 types of mammal living in the forest, including 33 protected species, as well as many rare birds and other species. But the undoubted star of the show is the European bison, the continent’s heaviest land animal and a national symbol of Poland.
By the early 20th century, the bison had been hunted to extinction in the wild in Poland and elsewhere in Europe. However, programmes to retrintroduce them from captivity mean that Białowieża now has a population of approximately 800 in the wild, the largest free-roaming population in the world.
Self-proclaimed “bison addict” @Exen captures the beauty of the region’s wildlife in his stunning photographs, a selection of which we are delighted to showcase below.
All images by @Exen. You can see more of his wildlife photography by following him on Twitter.