EXCLUSIVE STORY: Rewilding Southern Carpathians – two herds of bison wandering in Tarcu Mountains

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Armenis, Caras-Severin County, June 12. In the middle of an almost deadly silence, a bison gets off the truck and after just few steps starts grazing. He (or she) doesn’t know he is so close to his free and wild life, and like a shy and daunted child, the bison goes back. A few moments later he dares to enter the gate of the acclimatisation zone in Magura Zimbrilor (Bison Hillock) in Tarcu Mountains together with two others. All of them seem to enjoy the Carpathian’s green grass.

These are the first three individuals out of 14 brought in special trucks from zoo gardens and natural parks from Swiss, Germany, Belgium, and France, within the ambitious programme of repopulating the Southern Carpathians with the European bison.

To bring back both a national symbol and wilderness

The European bison (bison bonasus) is an element of the national blazon of Romania, but the people didn’t pay so much respect to those animals, so that the species disappeared in 1790 mostly due to intensive hunting.

This isn’t just a matter of national pride, but also one of a more practical and responsible substance. It is an important element of the ecosystem that has been lost to extinction and, consequently, the balance has been broken as other species of animal or birds either developed too much or disappeared, as well. Moreover, the vegetation is growing uncontrolled.

Therefore, WWF Romania and Rewilding Europe started a bold programme for bringing back the bison in the Southern Carpathians. Their goal is to reach a population of at least 500 individual by 2025 in this area. The first step has been made in 2014, when the first herd arrived in Armenis from several European countries. The second step just happened on June 12 as I above related.

But the process in the field is not as simple as it might sound in numbers and plans. I can say that after being witness to the arriving of the second herd in the acclimatisation zone and of the release of the first herd of bison in the absolute wildness. I also listened to stories told by the people involved in the long process of repopulating Bison Hillock.

It takes a lot of effort to find individuals, to select them considering genetics, age, sex and other aspects having always in view that the herd will face a wild environment and, therefore, many challenges ahead surviving. Then, it is the transportation that must be carefully prepared and supervised. More than two days in boxes on the roads apparently can be very stressful for the bison, so it is of high importance to set the proper route for collecting all the individuals from four European countries. Food and water must be provided alongside and that is why a truck of three-pack train was assigned only for carrying food and other accessories.

Joep van de Vlasakker, wildlife advisor for Rewilding Europe and the author of the Bison Rewilding plan 2014-2024, speaks with so much passion about the programme that his commitment to it is beyond any doubt. He even calls bison a “beautiful” mammal. Although I can’t share his vision on that I admire Joep’s knowledge on the bison’s life and behaviour in wildness. Joep says his team’s goal is to bring 20 bison a year in the area, but it depends on the availability, as the species is scarce in the rest of Europe, too.

The unpredictable wildness

Releasing the new herd in the acclimatisation zone and of the old herd in the full wildness were two interesting meetings with the bison.

We have been constantly trained how to behave in order to be respectful witnesses to those special events. The release of the new 14 bison has been made in the presence of a quite large audience that had the difficult task to keep silence – children from the local school, authorities from Armenis, WWF, Rewilding Europe and other associations’ representatives, the media. They watch the animals getting off the trucks from a safe area, enclosed with a fence of around 3 m high. Nevertheless, a bison obstinately refused to get off and the organizers decided the best solution is for all audience to leave the area. So, we didn’t witness the release of all animals, but the important thing is that they arrived in safety in the acclimatisation zone.

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Just wildness in the Southern Carpathians. Photo credit: Iulia Trandafir

Releasing the old herd from the acclimatisation zone to the wild area proved to be even more different than scheduled. First, after less than 50 meters, a bison released the day before appeared in front of us (at a safe distance though) while not seeming to welcome us. It appeared wiser for us to turn back and go towards the wilding area in SUV cars. In the meantime, rangers in the field announced that the release of the old herd in the wilding area has been produced. One bison has already broke the gate. I guess the wild instinct was quicker than us. Shortly after, that bison even received a name from a journalist – of course, in his absence – Houdini and Joep accepted.

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The Dutch Ambassador in Bucharest, Matthijs van Bonzel, cuts the ribbon in a symbolic gesture of opening the absolute wild area. He is surrounded by representatives of NGOs and local authority. Photo credit: Iulia Trandafir

Nevertheless, the symbolic removing of the gate has taken place in the presence of press, mayor of Aries, representatives of WWF Romania, Rewilding Europe, AMZA (a local association) and the Dutch Ambassador in Bucharest. And, as a last sign from nature, a light rain started, maybe to send us home and let the bison fully enjoy the wild life. The rain turned into a heavy storm during our way back to the village.

The local community to support and benefit of the wildness

The reestablishment of bison in the Southern Carpathians is part of a larger vision according to which WWF Romania, together with local and international partners, to work to conserve the nature and to support business opportunities for the community, says Magor Csibi, Director of WWF Romania. He adds “our dream is that we are not protecting nature from the locals, but with the locals”, expressing the engagement to support people from the villages around Tarcu Mountains to learn how to benefit from the beauty and wildness of their places.

After spending few days there, I can say people doesn’t lack hospitality. On the contrary! It seems they are too hospitable and offer their help and food to their guests for free.  Still, they have to learn to benefit from tourism by offering authentic food and accommodation and, of course, by charging for this.

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Wouter Helmer, Rewilding Europe Director (L), and Petru Vela, Mayor of Armenis (R) signing agreement right on the grass. Photo credit: Iulia Trandafir

All the representatives of NGOs stressed the good cooperation and thanked the locals, especially to the mayor of Armeni?, Petru Vela, for the support provided even from the beginning. The municipality offered 75 hectares of the community meadow for the release enclosure, but also logistic support. The Teregova Forest Administration also offered 80 hectares of their land to support initiative.

Nevertheless, there are questions about rewilding the area and the future consequences of the process. There is quite a lot of hunters in the villages and hunting or poaching risks are threatening the rewilding programme. The mayor of Armenis says locals know very well wild animals and try to protect their areal.

I spoke with two local hunters and, the funny thing is that, first of all, they show me their hunting licence, which was valid for this time of the year. I believed them in the first place, but they insisted to really check the licence, as they were eager to prove their good will.

Moreover, Magor Csibi speaks about the opportunity for the wild life tourism. And the best qualified guides for this would be, of course, the hunters, as they know the forest and its wild animals in their most hidden secrets and behaviours.

But the development of tourism mustn’t jeopardise the nature, so the massive tourism isn’t an option at Bison Hillock. Wouter Helmer, Rewilding Director, referred to this issue saying “instead of quantity, we want quality”.

The road to Bison Hillock, Armenis village

Bison Hillock is located in the Tarcu Mountains, part of Southern Carpathians, at about 14 km from the Information Center in Armenis (Caras-Severin County). More than 10 km of the road is through the forest and it can be done by foot (over three hours, locals say) or by SUV (about an hour, as we’ve done). All along the road through the dense beech forest you will have the river Raul Alb (the White River) and its anti-stressing lisp.

About European bison (bison bonasus)

The European bison is the largest land mammal of the continent and weighing up to over 1.000 kg. It once used to live all across Europe, except in some parts of Spain, Italy and northern Scandinavia.

It is an animal of the open and semi-open lands, but it also likes to spend time in the forests and woods nearby for shelter and food during parts of the year. Even though the bison primarily is a grass eater, an important part of its diet also comes from browsing bushes, bramble and trees. Bison eat up to 60 kg per day, and therefore have a real impact on the vegetation, keeping lands open and creating a mosaic savannah landscape.

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