Yellowstone for Europe. Romania’s ambitions for a huge new wildlife reserve

U:p on the hill we spy them; dark, imposing shapes moving through the dense forest. A herd of wild bison roams the Fgra Mountains of Romania. I stand in silence with my guide Rzvan Dumitrach as the animals graze.

This area of ​​Transylvania, on the southern edge of the Carpathian Mountains, is one of the wildest places in Europe. Brown bears, wolves and lynx roam the forested hills, and bison were recently reintroduced after a 200-year absence as part of the work of Foundation Conservation Carpathia. FCC’s ambitions are not small. it aims to create the continents largest forested national park. 101,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of wilderness reserve. Yellowstone for Europe.

The idea is for a park that will not only protect forests and wildlife, but also support local communities with ecotourism and nature-positive business, Rzvan says.

Romania has more than 6m hectares of forest, most of which are still virgin, unbroken areas with no human settlements, home to the few remaining patches of old-growth forest in Europe. But illegal logging has cleared vast areas of forest, and the destruction continues.

Carpathian Mountains in Romania.
Romania’s southern Carpathian Mountains contain many virgin forests, but illegal logging is a constant threat. Photo by George Soare

Since its founding in 2009, FCC’s biologist founders Christoph and Barbara Promberger and a team of philanthropists and conservationists have been raising money to buy forest land to stop deforestation, as well as to buy land for forest restoration. It’s a conservation model inspired by the Tompkins project in South America, which aims to be a sprawling park large enough to support significant numbers of large carnivores and allow evolutionary processes to take place.

So far, 26,900 hectares of forest and grassland have been purchased and preserved, and more than 4 million saplings have been planted. FCC rangers patrol 75,000 hectares, which has resulted in a halt to logging in neighboring forests. In another innovative move, the FCC Association purchased an additional 78,000 hectares of hunting rights to protect wildlife from trophy hunters.

Engaging local communities, providing jobs and slowly bringing more visitors to the area are part of the plan. I’m here to experience what ecotourism has to offer, hike to hides and campsites and view wildlife. As we hike to the Poyana Tamas Wilderness Camp, we stop at one of nine tree nurseries where a mix of native species are nurtured until they are planted. We also visit an education center where children learn about the importance of the landscape and how they can get involved in protecting it.

Two rangers follow a herd of bison.
Two rangers follow a herd of bison. Photo by Kalin Serben

The hike is steep in parts as our path zigzags through the woods. We see a viper and pass some fresh (and huge) bear tracks. the perforated marks on the tree and the overturned stones reveal its hunting for food. Knowing that we can encounter wildlife around any corner is exciting. The landscape seems to vibrate with energy. I’m torn between desperately hoping to see a bear up close and praying we don’t learn.

After a few hours we arrive at the campsite, the forest opening up to a meadow bursting with wildflowers. Restored mountain cabin with 360 degree views surrounded by tipi-style tents (with proper beds). The setting sun turns the limestone of the Piatra Craiului mountains a glowing pink.

The next day, a combination of hiking and off-road driving takes us to Bunea, a hidden 1,200 meters away. The wooden lodge overlooks a lake (arriving by electric boat is another option) and is surprisingly comfortable, with bunk beds, a double bedroom, a kitchen and even a proper shower. Huge, soundproof windows make the most of the views.

Bunea's roof is located at an altitude of 1200 meters.
Bunea’s roof is located at an altitude of 1200 meters. Photo by Daniel Mirlea

As night falls, I spy something moving into the clearing. A startled young female grizzly bear stops to sniff the air, rolls in the grass and rubs against a tree. Its hypnotic. We eat a dinner of polenta and wild mushrooms, staring into the darkness as if glued to a movie screen. A full moon illuminates the scene and it’s not long before a large male wanders into view and puffs away a few meters away. From the guest book it seems that this is not unusual. excited scribbles recount countless sightings of bear, wild boar, and red deer. So I’m not surprised when I wake up at dawn to see another female bear pawing the ground for logs.

We wait until he has passed some time, then calmly pick our way through the forest, passing a patch of beautiful old beech where signs of recent animal movement are evident all around. On the hillside beyond the river I spy a vast bare patch. Rzwan tells me it was illegally logged by a politician, but the FCC has now bought the land and replanting is underway.

The grizzly bears in the Carpathian mountains.
The grizzly bears in the Carpathian mountains. Photo: Ionut Cretu

Today’s hike takes us higher to another hideaway, Komisu, at 1,600 meters with stunning views over the mountains. We leave our gear and climb higher, to the ridge of the Fgra Mountains, the highest mountain range in the southern Carpathians, before the rain drives us back. Drying off by the wood burner, we watch the night sky close in, clear and starry, and an owl flies by, glowing like an angel in the moonlight.

In addition to leather, FCC’s tourism offering includes the 500-hectare Kobor Biodiversity Farm, located on the outskirts of Tikuu Vechi, an hour and a half from Brov. It is a place frozen in time. horses and carts roll by and women work in the fields with piles. The restored farmhouses sleep up to 23 people, and visitors can tour the farm, where Hungarian gray cattle and horse feed are part of a regenerative farming program. Carpathian sheepdogs are also bred here and given to local farmers and shepherds to protect them from bears and wolves, the 10 puppies on site are very cute. Rzwan tells me that the number of Kobori villages has dwindled to about 200, but ecotourism jobs may entice more to stay.

My next stop is the village of Nucoara, on the edge of the mountains close to Moldoveanu, the country’s highest peak. Its home is an extraordinary old beech forest. The last partisan anti-communist communities hid here, local history teacher Konstantin Berevoyanu says as we wander. Inspired by the local mayor, the FCC recently started accepting the beech campaign, funders can choose to tell their stories through the website and QR codes on the trees, and the money raised will go towards protecting the trees, improving infrastructure and attracting more visitors. .

The forests of Fgra are the stronghold of the Carpathian lynx.
The forests of Fgra are the stronghold of the Carpathian lynx. Photo by Dan Dino

Engaging communities and demonstrating that nature conservation can provide alternative income streams is critical to the success of a new national park. In addition to providing employment in roles ranging from rangers to tree planters, FCC has created a food hub for small local producers to sell their products. Guests enjoy delicious cheeses, zacusca: (eggplant and pepper spread), jams and honey during the stay.

Events are also regularly held to explain the work being done. Cobor Farm hosted its first festival this summer, and my trip coincides with Fgra Fest, a free event now in its fourth year, this time in Porumbacu de Sus, Sibiu. The mountain setting is spectacular and there are workshops, local food and great live music.

Author Jane Dunford walks in the Fgra Mountains.
Author Jane Dunford walks in the Fgra Mountains. Photo: Rzvan Dumitrash

One of the stars tonight is Sylvia Dunn, 80, from Nucoara, who sings as part of a show called Interbeing, created by Brighton-based artist Nico de Transylvania. It’s an interesting mix of electronic music, traditional singing and recordings of nature sounds. The themes that resonate are our interconnectedness with nature, the wisdom of the elders, and the importance of preserving these landscapes and traditions for future generations.

It’s a heartfelt message that resonates with the FCC’s grand vision. A new park of this size may take decades to complete, but to see the incredible beauty of what we are putting at risk, and the passionate work being done to save it, is quite a sight to behold.

The trip was made possible by Foundation Conservation Carpathia. Accommodation begins at Cobor Farm 46:pp (additional activity). Leather prices at Comisu start at 173:pp (first night, 115: extra nights), including a guided tour, breakfast and dinner. Poyana Tamas wild camping is currently only available to groups. Three-day Complete Wildlife Experience packages cost from 345:pp. For more information visit Travel Carpathia

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