Poland has over a dozen UNESCO World Heritage sites, but only one of them, the Białowieża Forest, is a natural heritage. And yet, our single visit enabled us only to see a very tiny part of it because the world heritage property consists of nearly 150,000 ha of woodland, some of it in neighbouring Belarus (which turned out to be a further complication – read our post on how we entered Belarus illegally: "In the snowy forests of Eastern Poland").
The main draw of this huge Białowieża Forest is the population of wild European Bisons roaming the area, crossing in and out of the European Union at will. Actually it's a wonder that there are any European Bisons left today: The largest land animals in Europe were a popular prey for enormous feudal hunting parties, so that their numbers dwindled especially during the 19th century. In 1919 the last free-ranging bison was killed, but a few animals still survived in the zoos of Europe. 10 years later a society for protecting the European Bison brought some of these to Białowieża, trying to breed and also to readjust them to life in the wild. They succeeded and since 1952 the bisons have been running free in the woods again.
But how do you find a herd of 400 bisons in an expanse of over 1000 km2? The rangers offer jeep tours to the spots where the bisons tend to be, but for just 2 people that would be rather expensive. As we were visiting in December it was rather unlikely to find other tourists to share the costs for the car. "It's not exactly high season", the officer tells us and suggests the fenced Bison reserve. "And watch out on the way," he says, "maybe you are lucky and see some wild ones on your way". Like their American relatives, the European Bisons were originally steppe animals and they still like to come out of the woods. Sometimes, especially in winter, they stand in the fields near the villages and once the ranger even saw one in his own back yard in the early morning hours.
But we are not lucky – no bison shows up when we walk the few kilometeres through the snowy wood along a well-marked path called “Zebra-Zubra” (Bison rib) to the reserve. Panels along the way give detailed information about the flora, but as it is winter we are not able to identify any of the trees and shrubs, and anyway at a temperature of -8 °C we are prone to speedy walking. When we reach the reserve we are the only visitors. After passing some horses and a very focused lynx we come to the bison enclosure. The bisons are standing a bit unfavourably (photo-wise) under a group of trees, but look very archaic and stunning. Because of the cold, saliva has frozen the fur around their muzzle and the small icicles make a jingle bell sound in the wind. Sometimes we hear them snorting – and they have these small tight asses......Very cute!
Is it worth visiting?
If you like nature and animals and also want to see a part of Poland not so much frequented by tourists (at least not non-Polish ones) it is definitely worth the trip. Although we quite enjoyed our tour through Poland in winter, it might be better to visit Białowieża in summer to increase your chance of seeing the wild bisons. With more tourists there are scheduled tours every day offered by the rangers.
How to get there?
Jeep tours start from the ranger office in the village of Białowieża where you can also purchase a hiking map of the area. The bison reserve can be reached by car or on foot. If you walk you will need around a half-day for the return trip.