Sunday, 27 June 2010

Poland 4: Beauty and the Beast

I've just made my latest visit to Białowieża, in Poland's east, and came away with the same confusion I always feel about how the place is marketed to the visitor.

Its famous herds of wild European bison are the focus of tourism to this remote village - but should they presented as a miracle of nature or as the traditional target of the hunter?

To me, the answer seems obvious. To understand why, you need to know a little of the story of this part of Poland.

The Puszcza Białowieska (Białowieża Forest) is the last remnant of the great primeval forest which once covered most of Europe. Nowadays it's split between Poland and Belarus, but for centuries it lay entirely within the Kingdom of Poland.

It was also packed with wildlife, including bison, the cousins of the buffalos we all know from Hollywood Westerns. So Polish kings built hunting lodges here for a bit of sport, and they were followed by the Russian tsars after eastern Poland was swallowed up by the Russian Empire at the end of the 18th century.

These monarchs made some some effort to protect the dwindling bison population even as they hunted them, but in World War I the German army occupied the forest and hunted down nearly all of of the remnant population. By 1919, they were extinct outside zoos.

A sad end for these mighty beasts in their native environment. Impressively though, a conservation program started reintroducing the creatures to the wild in the 1950s, and there are now several hundred bison in the forest. Visitors can enter the Strict Nature Reserve accompanied by a guide, with the chance of spotting bison in their natural state. As a result, Białowieża is a popular destination for tourists year-round.

You would assume, therefore, that the theme of the place would be animal conservation and the harm that hunting and other human activity has done to the natural environment over the centuries.

To some extent it is, and visitors marvel at the forest and the life within it. However, the hotels and restaurants of the village are generally themed in quite a different way. Decked out as mock hunting lodges, decorated with fake bison heads, animal skulls and other hunting memorabila, they seem to glorify the hunting that caused so much harm to the local fauna in the first place.

In one way they're just drawing on history, referencing the Tsar's hunting lodge which was burned down by German troops retreating from the Soviet army in the next world war.

However, it does seem a jarring choice of decor in a 21st century world that's far more sensitive to the harm that humans have done to the environment around them. Also considering that many people are less tolerant of hunting nowadays, seeing it as unnecessarily cruel (while, perhaps hypocritically, remaining tolerant of the breeding and killing of animals in controlled conditions for use as food).

Maybe I'm missing something here; but either way, I always cringe a little when I see the antlers, skulls and heads hanging on the walls of Białowieża venues, right above the animal skin rugs on the wall.

Am I too sensitive? Hypocritical? Misinterpreting some important aspect of the local cultural heritage? Or is the happy juxtaposition of hunting and conservation in Bialowieza just a little bit odd?