In a clearing in the forest, splashed with spring violets and patches of evening light, Irina Kashpei is checking her camera traps. The digital devices have been set up to record the comings and goings of a badger sett, deep in the ancient forest of Belovezhskaya Pushcha on the border of Belarus and Poland. Kashpei, an ecologist studying the animals of these vast woods, explains that judging by the huge mounds of earth, this badger sett could be over a century old.
The Pushcha is Europe’s last remaining primaeval forest, a fragment of the tree cover that once spread across Europe. It escaped logging thanks to its status as a royal hunting ground for generations of Russian tsars and Polish kings, and was protected too by the impenetrable mires that once surrounded it. For the modern eco-tourist, the Pushcha offers a spectacle unlike anything else on the continent: a glimpse back to a time when elk, bison and wolves roamed the woods.
One animal is a particular passion for Kashpei, who trained as a medical doctor before switching to biology. “We’re really trying to change the way people here see wolves,” she explains. In Belarus, unlike most European countries, wolf hunting is permitted. Though they are officially protected in the Belovezhskaya forest (a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve), most locals see them as unwelcome neighbours.
Kashpei works for a project, the Belovezhskaya Pushcha Conservation Programme, that aims to change traditional attitudes using very modern methods. They have attached GPS collars to four wolves and update the creatures’ movements and behaviour on a “wolf blog”. First, they have to catch them, using special traps that are boiled before being set to remove all human scent. “They’re very smart animals,” Kashpei smiles.
Engaging interest in wolves is essential, she tells me, as “if you’re interested in something you might love it, and if you love it you want to protect it.” She recently delivered a TED talk on the project and was overwhelmed by the response: “People were amazed to hear how intelligent wolves are, and just like us in some ways; they’d never thought of them like this.”
The wider world is waking up to the possibility of seeing wildlife in the Pushcha. Most of the half a million annual visitors to the park stick to the well-used hiking and bike trails around the visitor complex, but a growing number are now opting for bespoke visits to more remote parts of the forest.
The number of foreign visitors is slowly increasing, thanks to the relaxation of Belarus’s strict entry requirements last summer (visitors from the UAE, Europe and North America can now stay for 30 days with no visa). Still, there are just five wildlife guides here, compared to around 150 in the smaller Polish part of the forest. The next morning, I join one of the most experienced rangers to seek out the forest’s flagship species – and the largest land animal in Europe – the European bison. Aleksey Bunevich is a moustached mammal specialist who has worked at the park since 1976 and has a waistline that marks him as a Slavic bon viveur. We drive north from our hotel along tracks puddled with overnight rain as a pale yellow dawn builds in the east. Bunevich knows a glade where a herd of bison has been spotted recently, but he reminds us that sightings are never guaranteed: “When it’s raining, the bison like to stay dry.”
“There, standing and steaming in the cool morning air, is our first bison, looking like a hulking silhouette from a prehistoric age”
We park just back from the edge of the glade, hidden by stands of birch and pine trees. A white stork struts along a patch of marsh and the calls of snipe (a small wading bird) roll across the field. And there, standing and steaming in the cool morning air, is our first bison, looking like a hulking silhouette from a prehistoric age. We creep forward through the trees to get a better look. The lone male canters to join the others, full of spring energy, his tail coiled like a question mark and body tipped forward in a perpetual head-on lean. The bison gather together in a herd and gallop into the forest.
It is a sight that was very nearly lost forever. Bison were once found throughout Europe from Russia to France, but hunting and deforestation shrank their range until, by the early 20th century, only a few wild animals clung on in the forests of Belarus, Ukraine and Poland. After the last wild bison was shot in 1921, a programme to rescue the species was established and the first animals were re-released into the wild in 1952.
The programme has been so successful, now there are too many bison in Belovezhskaya, according to guide Bunevich. “We think the maximum number should be 350, and we have 570 at the moment,” he says, adding that the “extra” animals are moved from here to boost the size of other herds in Belarus (occasionally, one also ends up on the menu of the park restaurant). The Pushcha’s bison want for nothing. They have winter feeding stations complete with salt licks, fresh hay and areas to roll in – “bison spas”, as Bunevich puts it.
That evening I head out with Bunevich to see the Patriarch Oak, a 600-year-old forest giant scarred by lightning strikes. On the way we stop in the village of Platskie, whose only street is lined with wooden houses and cherry trees smothered in blossom. As her two cats curl and twist round each other along the garden fence, local shopkeeper Tatyana Nikoleyavna tells me she always likes to meet foreign visitors in her shop, though most are from no further afield than Poland. Less welcome are the wolves that she sometimes sees in the village in winter; she’s afraid to venture into the woods alone. Some hearts, it seems, will be slow to warm to Kashpei’s wolf project.
The forest was once home to more villages and farms, gradually abandoned to the woods as people have opted for city living. Our guide Bunevich, enlivened by a nip of local moonshine he acquired from a passer-by, remembers one Pushcha village with a peculiar, and pungent, tradition. “At weddings every dish on the table had to have wild garlic in it,” he says, referring to a plant that carpets the woods in spring. Like its domestic namesake, wild garlic has a pungent aroma. “You can imagine the smell of people’s breath,” says Bunevich, warming to his theme. “And on your wedding night!”
While many young people are leaving the forest for opportunities elsewhere, a few choose to stay. Anton Kuzmitsky grew up in the nearby town of Kamenets and is the park ornithologist. In spring the 32-year-old is out in the forest from dawn until dark, making the most of the long, light and mosquito-free days. He rarely has a holiday, but he’s not complaining, he loves nothing more than spending long hours in the forest observing its wildlife. “Pushcha is like an ocean,” he says. “I can go there every day and still find a place I’ve never seen before.”
Today we are heading for a swamp in the north of the forest, the Dikoe mires. It’s the best-preserved remnant of a much larger complex of marshes that once spread across the woods, which were drained to half their former size after World War II. The Dikoe mires are also the best place to see the park’s most spectacular bird, the great grey owl. Fittingly, in this forest of superlatives, it is the world’s largest owl.
We follow a raised track though the bog, which stretches away on both sides in carpets of tussocks and cranberry bushes. Three centuries ago, in the time of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, this narrow path was the main road linking the cities of Warsaw and Vilnius. We stand at a lonely point in the swamp. It marks one of Europe’s great watersheds: everything to the right of us flows towards the Black Sea; everything to the left flows north to the Baltic.
Kuzmitsky leads us towards a pine tree where the owls are nesting. Perched on a branch a few metres from the nest is the male. We creep closer. The owl’s eyes are drooped shut, the only sign of movement an occasional rotation of his head from left to right, smooth as a satellite dish. We move closer still, so close that binoculars become redundant: this male bird stands over half a metre tall.
We can see his strong talons on the branch, the grey and white barring on his soft belly feathers hanging down like a skirt. He turns his round face towards us and, for a thrilling moment, fixes us in the beam of his lamp-like yellow eyes. Then he’s gone, swooping into the trees with heavy, silent wing beats. Like so much else in this forest, it’s a moment, and a creature, to be treasured.