Białowieża National park’s strict reserve is the most special forest in Europe. Since the end of the last ice age, some 11,000 years ago, natural processes alone have been shaping this part of the forest. Beginning in the 14th century, the whole of Białowieża Forest was as the private hunting ground of Lithuanian and Polish kings. The system of protection broke down at the beginning of the 20th century, but somehow this small parcel of forest was saved. It gained national park status in 1931, and since then, entry to the public has been heavily restricted. Only tourists accompanied by a guide and research scientists are allowed to enter. In this article I’ll tell you what visitors need to know. I’ll touch upon the history, and explain why this small woodland is so special. Skip to the bottom of the article if you just want the tourist information.
The history of the strict reserve
Since time immemorial, human activity in the area now protected within the strict reserve has been minimal. In historical times it was always sparsely populated, and for the past century, entry has been almost entirely restricted. It’s never been commercially exploited for its wood, nor have trees ever been planted here. It’s a unique place, where nature has been left to its own devices for thousands of years. The result is a fairy-tale forest, of the kind that can be found nowhere else in Europe. Its survival is remarkable. Considering Europe is the most transformed continent on the planet, we’re very lucky that even this small parcel of forest has been preserved.
For most of its history, the strict reserve’s fate was the same as that of the rest of Białowieża Forest. It began growing 11,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. It remained a primeval wilderness for millennia, with only a few tribespeople living beneath its boughs. In the 14th century the Polish-Lithuanian king Władysław II Jagiełło made the entire forest his private hunting reserve. Over time, a unique system of protection was developed, whereby hunting and logging became heavily restricted. Local forest rangers (in Polish, osocznicy) maintained this protection on behalf of kings till the early 20th century. This all changed with WW1: the system of protection broke down, paving the way for a new era in the forest’s history. This is the point where the history of the strict reserve diverges from that of the rest of Białowieża Forest.
The new era ushered in a period chaos and destruction. The forest’s centuries-old tradition of protection disappeared overnight. In an act of wartime barbarism, the German occupying force cut down some 25% of Białowieża Forest. In other words, in just three years a quarter of Europe’s last remaining primeval forest was destroyed. It was an astonishing loss, and the worst period in Białowieża Forest’s history. Against all odds however, a German naturalist named Hugo Conventz intervened. He’d visited several times and had noticed something special about the forest. He used his influence to campaign for a nature park and convinced the German authorities to protect a 3000 ha fragment of the forest − an unbelievable achievement considering the wartime context and the fact that nature conservation was but a fringe movement at the time.
This fragment of forest, sandwiched between the Hwożna (to the north) and Narewka (to the west) Rivers, became the precursor to the contemporary strict reserve. After Poland regained its independence in 1921, a protected forest district was created overlapping the same area. Ten years later, in 1932, the forest district was elevated to national park status. Throughout WW2, communist times, and the economic hardships of the 1990s, protection has continued to this day. This unique history of protection thus preserved the last fragment of the vast forest that once covered the whole of the European lowlands. Nowadays the strict reserve is part of an enlarged national park (the NP was doubled in size in 1996).
A natural wonder
The value of a well-preserved forest is immense, even if not immediately obvious. I’ve described some of the reasons why Białowieża Forest is a special place in a separate article. These same reasons apply to the strict reserve. It’s worth noting however, that there are plenty of areas outside of the national park, in the so-called ‘managed forest’, that resemble the strict reserve. So while the strict reserve is a stunningly beautiful place, don’t expect it to be radically different to some of the better-preserved nature reserves outside of the national park.
Strict reserve tourist information
Białowieża National Park is divided into two areas, the active management zone and the strict reserve. The strict reserve is the core and most special part of Białowieża Primeval Forest. Public entry is permitted with registered guides only. You can usually get a hold of guides at the PPTK (Polish Tourist and Sightseeing Society) office, which is located before the bridge at the entrance to the Palace Park. I’ve not tried this, so I can’t vouch for the quality of the service that you’ll get. (Although the guides I have met have been lovely people). Otherwise you can do a quick internet search in google. On top of the guide’s fee (mentioned below) there is a token entrance fee to the national park – tickets cost 6 PLN for adults and 3 PLN for children. You can find guides that speak most commonly spoken languages. Guides I’ve met personally and can recommend are Joao Ferro, Basia Banka and Grazyna Chyra. You can ask around for them or perhaps find them on facebook.
There is only one trail open to the public, with two options (described below). There’s no scope for going off-piste to explore forest. The tourist trail begins at the main entrance and goes north up the western side of the strict reserve through some of the best preserved deciduous forest. The guide will describe what you’re seeing along the way, so I won’t spoil it for you ;). Make sure you dress appropriately for the time of year and bring food/drinks. Remember to take insect repellent as the mosquitos can be particularly bad at times.
Strict reserve trail options
Option 1 − 3 hours, distance 4.5 km (marked in pink on the above map). Expect a trip to the strict reserve to cost to be around 200-300 PLN (max 12 people per group). This is the most popular trip (marked on the map above). It gives you a quick impression of what the whole of forest used to look like before humans transformed the continent. It’s a short round trip up the main tourist trail, which then returns via a smaller side-path that allows you to get up close to the trees. Bear in mind, it can get a bit busy in peak tourist season, as all groups follow the same short route.
Option 2 – 6 hours, distance 20 km. The longer option that allows you to see a larger selection of different forest and habitat types. It also increases the odds of seeing wild animals as you’re in the forest for longer. This option apparently needs to be booked in advance as the permits need to be individually signed by the BNP director.
One final thing to note, don’t expect to see wild animals on every trip. The wildlife is mainly active at night and is easily scared. So bear in mind that main aim of the strict reserve tour is to see the untouched primeval forest 😉 There are various other tours available for spotting the wildlife (usually outside the strict reserve). So if spotting animals is what you’re after, just ask your guide or at the PTTK centre for the various different options!