Tracking Bison And Bears In The Southern Carpathian Mountains
European bison were brought back here as part of pioneering reintroduction project in 2014. Stuart Kenny went along this summer to see how rewilding is helping nature, people, and the local economy to thrive
Featured Image Credit: Getty Images
Georg crouches down to inspect the faeces in front of us, and then looks back up with a smile. This isn’t the first pile of animal faeces we’ve examined today, and it won’t be the last. But Georg Messerer – a qualified Wilderness Trails Guide and the tracking expert leading us through the Southern Carpathians of Romania – seems particularly pleased with this particular turd.
“Bison,” he says, pointing to the large, squidgy pile of dung on the floor, “and a bear track.”
Georg has been guiding here, in the remote hills of the Țarcu Mountains, near the village of Armeniș, for over five years. Ever since the reintroduction of bison. He’s the kind of guide who can tell you an animal’s medical history and PIN number based on a good footprint in the mud.
“The kind of guide who can tell you an animal’s medical history and PIN number based on a good footprint in the mud”
It took us four and a half hours to drive to our log cabin from Cluj-Napoca airport. The last few kilometres gave our car suspension a run for its money, too. But the Southern Carpathians look exactly as promised – densely-forested mountains layering on top of one another into the far distance, a scene backdropped by the tallest nearby peak, the 2190 metre Vârful Țarcu.
As we hike, the first of many buzzards we’ll see cruises over the dense green, broken up only by the reservoir Lake Tău Bistra down to our right. In a couple of weeks, it’ll all turn gold for Autumn.
The Southern Carpathians are home to some of the largest wilderness landscapes remaining in Europe. They’re also home to one of the continent’s most important large carnivore and herbivore populations. Here, alongside foxes, badgers and deer live lynx, wolves, wildcats, wild boar, golden jackals, black bears and – thanks to WWF Romania and Rewilding Europe – bison.
The European bison were brought back to Armeniș as part of a pioneering reintroduction project in 2014, after an absence of 200 years from the area. Prior to this project, European bison were on the brink of global extinction, due to a (familiar) combination of overhunting and habitat loss.
The last wild European bison was shot in the Caucasus in 1927, leaving only 54 individual animals still alive the world over – all in zoos or private parks. Remarkable conservation work has expanded that population to around 6,000 today, many of which are roaming free, and in 2020 the conservation status of the bison was restored from “vulnerable” to “near threatened”. That’s not the most reassuring conversation status, of course, but it’s a big improvement on 54.
“The last wild European bison was shot in the Caucasus in 1927”
The first bison released in Armeniș were driven in from around Europe to ensure diversity in the gene pool. Through further imports (and, more excitingly, those being naturally born in the Southern Carpathians), there are now around 100 free-roaming bison in the Țarcu Mountains.
Bison prefer to inhabit mixed landscapes of grassland and forest. It’s where they do their best work. Bison are grazers – large herbivores who eat grass and shoots, as well as bark from trees like the goat willow, hornbeam and aspen. This diet, and their clumsiness, often results in the snapping of branches and in leaving trees standing dead or fallen. Let’s not forget that European bison can weigh up to 1000kg. This is why they’re known as “nature’s chainsaw” – a title which, admittedly, sounds more like a nickname for a vegan MMA fighter. The end result is that slower-growing trees – which often bear fruit and berries – are given a chance to grow, and a mosaic landscape is established, with a mixture of open spaces and forest ideal for biodiversity.
“A lot of nature conservation revolves around spending a lot of time and energy doing exactly what these herbivores are doing,” says Georg. “Cutting the grass and cutting trees. Then at the same time, we’re trying to keep the bison alive. So this really is an obvious thing to do.”
The bear tracks in our bison poo sadly don’t lead to a cuddly black bear hiding round the corner, but our silent hiking regime does soon come good. Creeping up to the edge of a clearing, Georg mouths the word “bison” and hands me his binoculars. It’s a full herd. Most of the bison munch away at the grass, while one particularly muscular bison batters the branches off an ash tree.
The bison soon realise they’re being watched, and compromised, the floor begins to shake as they stampede up a nearby hill in a stunning show of strength and power.
It’s not just the environment seeing the benefits of the bison, either. The reintroduction program is proving a prime example of how rewilding projects, when they truly engage with the local community, can also hugely benefit people too. The mayor of Armeniș in 2014, Petru Vela, welcomed in the bison as he believed the project would create local jobs – and he was right.
Guesthouses created specially to accommodate ecotourism are now fully booked all summer. Tourists come for weekend escapes from Romanian cities, and come internationally to see the pioneering conservation work. I’m here on the first departure of Much Better Adventure’s new rewilding adventures range, which was launched in partnership with the tourism arm of Rewilding Europe. I’m alongside guests who have been inspired by Isabella Tree and the rewilding boom in the UK to combine their first post-Covid holiday with a visit to a Rewilding Europe project. And of course, all these guests need to be catered for. They need to be driven between accommodations, and bring with them the need for tips and souvenirs. Locals are first in line for all of these new jobs. They were skeptical at first that anyone would actually come. Tourism simply didn’t exist in Armeniș before the bison, but now it’s a welcome income for many in the village.
“The floor begins to shake as they stampede up a nearby hill in a stunning show of strength and power”
Matei Miculescu, an Armeniș local who became a Bison Ranger in 2014, joins us for a meal cooked by a local hunter, Bibi. The meal, called balmaş is an insatiable dish made with cheese from local cows, milk, corn and cooked in vegetable oil.
Matei has the car to match his job title; his 4×4 boasts WWF and Rewilding Europe logos on the side, and a huge print of a shield on the bonnet, bearing a large image of a bison, and emblazoned with his job title. Miculescu has become one of Europe’s leading bison experts.
“A lot of the other animals are directly benefiting from the bison,” Matei says. “But we didn’t really know what to expect. There are some books on bison, but not many. It’s been really interesting to see how birds collect the fur of the bison to use in their nests, as an insulator, or how small toads use the bison footprints that fill up with water in the mud, to travel – hopping from one pond to the next.” It fits with rewilding’s mantra of letting natural processes run free.
Miculescu has also been key in ensuring the voice of the local community is heard. It can take a while for a bison from a reserve to truly become truly “wild” again. Typically arriving bison are not scared of people, and so may venture into the local villages, where they can knock over orchards or eat haystacks or vegetables. Legally, it is possible to claim money back for such damage through the Romanian government, but the process is long and arduous, so compensation usually comes instead through local community organisation WeWilder by WWF.
“We saw the need from the beginning to develop the project within the community, and to work with locals and invest in them,” says Matei. “They need to benefit from the bison too. At a certain point, whether it’s after 10 or 20 years, the funded projects here will be over and then it’ll be the locals, and the local association, taking care of the bison and bison habitat.”
The bison have been warmly welcomed overall, and the tourists who have come to see the animals and the landscape have installed a renewed sense of pride in Armeniș for locals.
“For them, to see how much we appreciate this landscape shifts their baseline of what they think is normal,” says Georg. “They’ve realised that actually, what they have is special. It’s beautiful.”
“This is an area that looks, feels and sounds alive – a place and project to be proud of”
We camp out next to the Timiş River under a stunning starry sky, and the milky way. The next morning we hike to a wildlife observatory, stopping to munch on plums and apples, much like the bison and bears would. We hear black, green and great spotted woodpeckers, nuthedges, jays and ravens above the ever-present chirping of the local grasshoppers and crickets. The panoramic observatory looks out over the beech and hornbeam forests, over the vibrant open spaces of the Bison Hillock and over the Țarcu Mountains, where bison roam free.
This is an area that looks, feels and sounds alive – a place and project to be proud of indeed.
We flew into Cluj-Napoca Airport with Wizz Air, and travelled to the Țarcu Mountains with Much Better Adventures. The four-night trip costs £658 and runs in June, July, August and Sept 2022.
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