As a blanket of late afternoon mist obscures the valley floor below, a procession of large beasts emerges warily from the nearest pine thicket. Making their way onto the grassy, sun-warmed slope, they stop to graze, tails twitching, eyes bright beneath upturned horns. Here in southwest Romania’s Tarcu Mountains, it’s a moment to savour for Adrian Miculescu.
‘I still find it strange to see these beautiful bison roaming wild here,’ says the young trainee ranger in broken English. ‘These have always been animals from Romanian legend. But it isn’t strange for the animals to be here, in this environment. After all, if it wasn’t for man, there would still be bison herds throughout the Carpathians.’
The European bison – which closely resembles its North American cousin – once populated much of the European continent, from the Massif Central region of France in the west, to the Volga, the Caucasus and beyond in the east. With hulking males standing two metres tall and weighing over 1,000kg, they were all but immune to predation.
Yet the European bison’s great size was its undoing. Widely hunted for its prized meat, the bison had already disappeared from its original range by the Middle Ages. By the beginning of the 20th century it was on the brink of extinction and could only be found in two protected areas. The last wild Polish bison was poached in 1919, while the last wild animal in the Caucasus fell in 1927.
But the bison did not quite go extinct. Today, the story of its comeback is tied up in a far wider move to reset Europe’s ecological clock – a move to make Europe a far wilder place.
Road to rewilding
By the 1920s, there were less than 60 European bison left alive, all residing in zoos and private collections. The creation of a bison studbook in 1923, however, was eventually followed by dedicated breeding programs, with releases back to the wild starting in 1956. Thanks to the work of a few enlightened individuals in those early days, bison populations of varying degrees of health are now scattered across Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Germany and Russia.
Despite this apparent success, it remains under threat. ‘There are around 3,250 European bison in the wild,’ says Frans Schepers, managing director of the Netherlands-based Rewilding Europe. ‘It is truly heartening to see such an increase in numbers, but this still makes it rarer than iconic endangered species such as the black rhino.’
Founded in 2011 and with strong ties to the WWF, Rewilding Europe is working to ‘rewild’ one million hectares of European land by 2020.
‘Our goal is to make Europe a wilder place, with more space for wildlife, for wild nature and for natural processes,’ explains Schepers. ‘We want to bring the variety of life back to Europe’s abandoned land for everyone to enjoy. We also want to find new ways for people to earn a fair living from the wild. Some people are apprehensive at the thought of letting nature manage itself. With our highly structured lives and with most of us having grown up in a heavily cultivated landscape, this is understandable. We need to trust nature to find its own balance and to find new ways of coexistence.’
Completely letting go has been one of the main problems with European bison conservation since the animals were first reintroduced in the 1950s.
While designated as ‘free roaming’, in reality herds are not integrated into natural ecosystems. They are frequently given food, they are prevented from entering their preferred habitats and their densities are too low, meaning they have a negligible impact on local biodiversity.
This idea of tightly controlled habitats and species runs contrary to the whole concept of rewilding and is what makes the reintroduction of European Bison into the Tarcu Mountains such a ground-breaking project.
Located in southwest Romania, the Tarcu Massif is part of the Carpathians, a great, crescent-shaped mountain chain that extends from the Czech Republic, through Ukraine and Romania, and into the Balkans. A sparsely populated land of forest, upland meadow and 2,000-metre peaks, 590 square kilometres of the land was recently designated a ‘Natura 2000’ site (part of a network of important ecological sites throughout Europe) thanks to its relatively rich biodiversity, with wolf, lynx, brown bear, red deer, roe deer and chamois all present in varying numbers.
‘This is the perfect location for the European bison – absent from the area for over two centuries – to go completely wild,’ says Adi Grancea, a WWF Romania project officer attached to the initiative. ‘Our objective is to create a fully self-sustaining, viable population of 300 to 500 bison by 2025 that will roam completely free and multiply. As all European bison come from such a small genetic pool, we have brought together animals from existing herds across Europe to try to boost diversity. For a Romanian such as myself, it is a very exciting project to be involved with.’
The Tarcu bison reintroduction has been a multi-stage process. Initially released into a small acclimatisation zone, the 17 animals were subsequently moved to a larger, 160-hectare area, giving them the opportunity to hone latent survival skills and form a social hierarchy. By early 2015, all bonds with man will be completely severed as the bison enter the wild proper.
As a so-called ‘keystone’ species, European bison have the power to dramatically affect local ecology. Through its grazing, wallowing, trampling and fertilizing behaviour, it creates numerous unique niches for other plant and animal species to thrive. Under natural conditions, bison are also an important food source for predators such as wolves and bears.
‘The presence of the bison has the potential to dramatically reshape the Tarcu mountain environment and its complex web of natural relationships,’ says Grancea. ‘The effect of the herd should be to open up the forest, creating new habitats for other fauna such as insects and birds. There are many bears and wolves here, so the dynamics of predation are going to change as well.’
Changing the norm
Today, most Europeans grow up surrounded by limited quantities of wildlife. By the 1950s and 60s, widespread hunting, poaching, poisoning, habitat loss and pollution, coupled with the impact of pervasive chemicals, had reduced the number of larger species across the continent to an all-time low. Many species were driven into remote corners, especially into the remaining European forests, where they could escape the frequently lethal presence of man.
‘Somehow, we got used to the idea that absent and shy wildlife was nothing unusual,’ says Schepers. ‘Today a lot of Europeans still don’t recognise that natural, far higher densities of wildlife are key to the normal and healthy functioning of our ecosystems.’
In densely populated, highly urbanised western Europe, few significant expanses of land are truly wild outside mountainous areas such as the Alps and Pyrenees. Yet the recently released Wilderness Register for Europe, which maps out the ‘wildness’ of the European continent for the first time, shows large tracts of pristine, natural environment across eastern Europe, Scandinavia and Iceland.
Many of Europe’s keystone species have seen a significant rise in numbers over the last 40 years, with animals such as the brown bear, moose, chamois and grey wolf all showing population increases. A wild wolf howl was heard in Denmark recently for the first time in 200 years, while wild boar now inhabit suburban Berlin.
Regardless of whether their populations are reintroduced or restore themselves naturally, keystone species can clearly improve the health and diversity of entire ecosystems. From Spain and Italy, to Portugal and Croatia, Rewilding Europe is now working to restore ten European sites, focusing on such animals as the bison, wild horse, beaver and brown bear.
The establishment of ‘no-take’ zones (areas where hunting and fishing are banned) will complement a gradual hands-off approach to habitat management that the organisation hopes will eventually lead to greater biodiversity.
Wild at heart
Rewilding in its fullest sense, which typically involves animals that may conflict with the interests of man, is most practically achieved in large spaces where humans are largely absent. Yet even in far smaller spaces close to large cities, some degree of rewilding can still successfully be achieved.
In Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands, for example, on a coastal site that only covers 56 sq km, red deer, Heck cattle (an attempt to breed back the extinct aurochs) and wild horses have roamed free since the 1980s, with the vagaries of natural food, climate and natural competition controlling population numbers.
‘You can do a lot with a little,’ says Schepers. ‘Both Oostvaardersplassen and Yellowstone National Park, at nearly 9,000 sq km, offer classic rewilding stories of species reintroduction and restored ecosystems. It shows that any region can become wilder.’
Attempts to make Europe wilder will have limited success without the support of local human populations. It is for this reason that Rewilding Europe follows a ‘bottom-up’ approach, engaging widely with stakeholders on all of its projects and facilitating sympathetic, rewilding-related businesses wherever it can.
‘As wildlife and natural habitats make a comeback, this creates opportunities for new and often vital economic activities, especially in areas where agriculture is declining,’ says Schepers. ‘However, in order for such economic models to succeed, local people must be engaged and supportive from the start. We work with them to show how rewilding can not only improve the environment, but also bring direct and indirect financial benefits.’
Although the Tarcu bison reintroduction is in its early stages, it is already benefiting the local community. A Bison Interpretation Centre has been established, from which guided bison ‘safaris’ and nature-related activities will soon be organised. Locally-made products are on sale in the centre, while several young villagers, such as Adrian Miculescu, have been trained up as bison rangers and guides.
‘We want to show the young people of Armeniș [a district of five villages in western Romania] that there are viable employment alternatives to waiting tables in Germany or picking strawberries in Spain,’ says Grancea.
‘Many of my friends have already left Armeniș to work in Bucharest and overseas,’ adds Miculescu. ‘I was very happy when I heard about the rewilding project and the opportunity to stay here.’
With the wildlife-watching industry growing exponentially across the world, there is hope in Armeniș that as European bison numbers increase, an entire nature-based economy will develop. An economy which will see the bison, and the other species with which they interact, becoming more valuable alive than dead.
‘We want Armeniș and these mountains to be known across the world as bison country,’ says Vela Petru, the local mayor. ‘This project has already raised the profile of the area. If the bison can thrive and we can help local people take advantage of opportunities in a sustainable way – as guides, as hoteliers, as restaurateurs and so on – then it’s a win-win proposition for all concerned.’
A wilder way ahead
Against the background of a European continent that is now changing economically, socially and environmentally, rewilding and the whole concept of ecological restoration has come a long way in a short time. Now featuring highly on the European conservation agenda, the increasingly well-supported rewilding concept is prompting legislative changes on many levels.
Europe is a continent that prides itself on its great museums, libraries and seats of learning, on its concentrated culture and venerated history. If the way Europeans view wildlife continues to undergo a paradigm shift, then animals such as the European bison could, unwittingly, come to rival such tangible and intangible assets in value.
‘The days when you can travel to Europe, rather than Yellowstone, for an authentic wildlife safari experience may just be on the distant horizon,’ says Schepers with a smile.
This article was published in the January 2015 edition of Geographical magazine.