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Pass through the heavy oaken gate into the Strict Nature Reserve (SNR) in Poland's Bialowieza Forest National Park and you step back in time. This is a forest such as you have never seen before, a true fairy tale forest, the Wildwood of 7,000 years ago. Oak and ash, lime, spruce and hornbeam soar to 40 metres and more. Cathedral pillars of trees, branchless until they form the canopy far above, "Some people come expecting the eerily dark taiga forest they have in Russia." my guide, Stawek Marczuk, remarked. "Bialowieza is not like that, it is a Robin Hood forest." And he is right, there is none of the forbidding atmosphere experienced in some forests, this is a friendly place... But it was not until I met Wlodek Jedrzejewski, from the Mammal Research Institute, who studies wolves and lynx here with his wife Bogusia, that I realised how precarious is the wolf's position and alongside it, that of the unprotected forest. I did not expect to see the large canids because they are generally nocturnal, remarkably cautious and very secretive but there was no mistaking the pungent droppings that I found in the SNR nor the deep scratch marks scored by great wolf paws as, with fierce enthusiasm, he staked out the boundaries of his territory.
When Wlodek started work here in 1994, there were two wolf packs and a total of 12 wolves. Now there are 22 animals and 4 packs with an emergent fifth. Only one of these packs occupies the national park, the rest live in the exploited forest, although to anyone visiting from Britain, the latter looks as wild as anything to be found at home. But poaching is on the increase, though, and a rise in the number of wild boar last year led to more snares being put out. As a result four wolves were accidentally taken and killed.
Without national park status, action is down to the police, who are already stretched but do their best to apprehend offenders in the villages, and to the foresters. And, as wild boar damage trees, the latter are quite grateful to the poachers. Across the border in Belaruse, in spite of the forest's national park status, wolf hunting is still allowed, presumably because it is a highly remunerative activity and they need the cash. But wolf packs are no respecters of frontiers and the Jedrzejewski's successes are helping to feed the guns of wealthy western Europeans.
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