Nowhere in Europe do as many bears, wolves and lynxes roam free as Romania. Soon a private national park could help protect their numbers
“I’ll pack you off to Wallachia,” my grandfather used to say whenever I annoyed him and got on his nerves. Wallachia, for my German granddad, was a bit like Timbuktu for English speakers. In other words, a place that stood for nowhere, for far away, uncertainty, loneliness and wilderness. Alone in Wallachia, you are lost, I thought.
Now, standing on a hill in neighboring Transylvania, I see it stretching away before me – an undulating, velveteen landscape in a hundred shades of green. Some slopes are covered with dense forest; elsewhere, the dark green of the huge old trees is interspersed by the pale green of new saplings. Away in the distance, the Făgăraş Mountains are a jagged outline on the horizon – and on the other side is Wallachia.
It really is wild and lonely, this hill that Christoph Promberger has brought me to. A wildlife biologist from Germany who studies wolves, Promberger, 50, came to the Carpathians over 20 years ago, fell in love with the beautiful countryside and stayed. Now he lives in Şinca Nouă, a village nearly 200 kilometers northwest of the capital, Bucharest. We left our car in the valley and followed a track up past small houses unconnected to the power grid, with individual solar panels on the roof and chimneys belching sooty smoke. As we walked, Promberger talked to me about wolves and bears, about his dream of setting up a national park and about the red tape it involved. “I want to start a European Yellowstone,” he said.
Romania has 6.7 million hectares of forest covering a quarter of the country. Very few countries in Europe can match Romania for its wild animal population. More than 2500 wolves are said to roam its forests, as well as roughly 6000 brown bears and some 1500 lynxes, all of which depend on the forest for survival. I want to travel through Transylvania and Wallachia; I want to see this great wilderness while it still exists, because the forest is shrinking. Large areas have already been cleared, and logging goes on even in Romania’s national parks, meaning that some nature reserves exist only on paper.
Promberger is fighting to preserve the forests. He wants to set up a private national park in the southern Carpathians, a 2600-square-kilometer site roughly ten times larger than Germany’s Bavarian Forest National Park, that will be patrolled by his own employees. Promberger and his wife, Barbara, are looking to purchase 1000 square kilometers through a foundation they have set up for the purpose, and he is hoping the Romanian government will contribute the remaining 1600.
The territory is located between the cities of Braşov and Sibiu, this side of and beyond the Făgăraş Mountains, in Transylvania and Wallachia. “In the beginning, we only bought up intact forest,” says Promberger, “but now we have started buying and reforesting logged areas, as well.” We climb the final slope to the top of a hill, where horses are calmly grazing and a handful of riders are sitting around a small campfire.
After completing his wolf research project, Promberger started a horseback riding facility and guesthouse with his wife. They take visitors out on day and week-long hacks across the wild countryside, where they spend the night in tents and cook food over a campfire. Next morning, I also swing myself into the saddle and join the group on their ride. Four hundred meters up, a sparse beech wood looks like it’s soaking up sunlight and reflecting it twice as brightly. We ride across country for hours, fording streams and pushing through dense undergrowth.
Animals are better company
This place is a riders’ paradise because no one fences off their land and we never have to dismount to open a gate. We see trees with scratches on the bark where bears have used their claws, spot wolf tracks in the muddy ground, and hear the rustle of a stag behind a hedge. To actually see the animals, you need plenty of patience and a little bit of luck. The best place to catch a glimpse of wild animals is where they come to feed, and in these places, you will still find small wooden huts where hunters once lay in wait for their prey. At dusk, I find myself in one of these along with a dozen other visitors, staring out on a clearing where two half pigs, corn, cookies and lots of chocolate bars have been placed. I had envisioned nature-watching to be a more romantic pastime, but this, I am told, is the best way to lure bears. The light fades, and when nearly all the color has vanished from the day our first bear pads out of the undergrowth, rises up on his back legs and sniffs the wind before running straight toward the chocolate.
It has taken Promberger many years to waken enthusiasm – or at least interest – among the rangers for preserving wildlife and nature. In the long term, there is more money to be made by taking tourists to observation points than by killing the animals illegally. But Promberger does not approve of the chocolate and cookies since they are bad for the animals’ stomach as well as their teeth. In his park, he plans to erect a few observation towers beside the trails where the wild animals’ paths cross. Until those towers are in place, he will just have to put up with the local, tooth decay-inducing method.
Why? Because for him, what the animals feed on is less important than that they stay alive, which is why Promberger, his wife and some of their friends founded their own association of forest rangers, purchased the sole rights to the area and hired a ranger, Nelu Moşu. The next day, I head south in an off-roader to see Moşu, passing ox carts and carthorses along the way. Just beyond Bran Castle, the famous, if fictitious, home of Count Dracula, I find myself caught up in a parade of decorated cars loudly tooting their horns. They halt at the roadside. Out of them pour men in plain suits and women in traditional embroidered costumes in red and gold. They wave and invite me to join a wedding. I agree to pose with them for some photos and then continue my journey.
Soon I arrive at Piatra Craiului National Park in Wallachia. I drive along beside the Dâmbovița river, which is no more than a meandering stream at this point. This is where Promberger has purchased his first 160 square kilometers of woodland. There are fresh young saplings swaying in the breeze on some of the slopes. Moşu, a former hunter, is waiting for me beside a small bridge. These days he’s a gamekeeper, counting deer, wolves and bears, putting out fodder when the winters are severe and keeping an eye out for poachers. Moşu surveys the treetops, his cap pulled low, his arms folded across his chest and his calloused hands thrust into his armpits. He has walked the forests of his native country all his life.
His old turf was on the other side of the mountains, where the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu came to shoot bears, but only every two to three years; in between, the animals were left in peace. “No one dared poach on the president’s land,” says Moşu. He knows which paths the bears take and where the wolves lie down to sleep. “A lot went wrong after the collapse of Communism,” he said. That’s when the poachers came out of the woodwork. A hunter could command between 3000 and 7000 euros for the skin, meat and head of a bear. In Romania, you can live off that kind of money for more than six months.
“We only have around 10 to 15 bears on these 160 square kilometers at the moment, as well as four wolves and 20 red deer,” says Moşu. He pulls a digital camera out of his jacket pocket and slowly scrolls through the pictures. A bear, two deer and another bear. A couple of sheep and some cattle. Moşu shows me the photos like other people would show off pictures of their families. He’s silent now, just smiling, his gaze calm. “People scare me,” he says, “animals are better company.”
My grandfather often preferred animals to people, too. Maybe, instead of threatening me with Wallachia, he should have paid a visit himself. It’s a pity he never got the chance to ride through these forests. I’m sure he would have enjoyed it.