In preparation to our November ranger seminar on Biodiversity, Large Carnivores and Local Communities, we spent a week on site with the Society for the Protection of Wolves. Our host: the Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC), a foundation that aims to establish a national park of 250,000 hectares – “large enough to support significant numbers of large carnivores and to allow evolutionary processes to happen”, as it announces. See for yourself with our report and register with your full name and ranger association for one of the 16 places for the seminar from 6 to 12 November 2022 at firstname.lastname@example.org!
The goulash is still steaming from the plates when the first one jumps up and puts on his binoculars. “Over there on the slope, to the left of the thick spruce!” he calls softly. Now the others also drop their spoons and grab the binoculars. “Yes, I see him, too!” “And there, a little below, another one, do you see it?”, “Wow, it’s quite big,” it hisses from the terrace in front of the alpine hut Poiana Tamas. We are visiting the Foundation Conservation Carpathia in the Southern Carpathians of Romania, the country with the most bears in Europe. According to official figures, there are 6,000. And yet we would never have dreamed that bear sightings would be served to us so comfortably for supper.
Bear sightings for dinner: one of many exciting experiences in the Făgăraș Mountains © Kunz
We, that is eleven German participants of the excursion “Biodiversity, Large Carnivores and Local Communities”, a seminar of the Society for the Protection of Wolves (GzSdW), created in close coordination with the founders of the foundation Barbara Promberger-Füerpass and Christoph Promberger. This November, the European Ranger Federation will be able to offer the same seminar again for European rangers thanks to the environmental foundation Greenpeace, which also supports the GzSdW. So then, when there is a good chance of snow up here and thus for the successful search for tracks of bears, wolves, lynxes and other wildlife.
Every day in Făgăraș area is marked by new discoveries
But even without snow, the group of biologists, botanists, foresters, wolf officers, conservation journalists and wilderness enthusiasts feel like they are in paradise in the Făgăraș Mountains, the highest in the Romanian Carpathians: Every day we are on the road, and every day the experts among us make new sightings through binoculars, on the roadside, in the sky, in the puddles or in hundreds of years old, potholed oak trunks. Orchids, extremely rare or endangered species such as the hermit beetle, the yellow-bellied toad, which is actually bright yellow on its belly, golden eagles or the red deer, which is rather rare in Romania compared to western Europe.
And again and again: bear tracks. 14 impressive centimeters long and almost as wide paw prints in the wet sand, bear hair or scratch marks on the trees and droppings. We learn to recognize and interpret the tracks, for example that a fresh bear hair has elasticity when stretched with the fingers, but an old one snaps immediately. For wolf tracks, on the other hand, we have to make do with photographs from the photo traps. “There was intensive farming of bears here in Romania, as in many communist states, with special feeding schemes implemented back then with the purpose of trophy hunting” says ranger and wildlife biologist Ruben Iosif, explaining the present dominance of bear tracks. He and his colleagues in monitoring estimate the population density of bears in this region at 17 to 18 per 100 square kilometers, compared to 2 to 3 for wolves.
Bears and wolves coexist through temporally shifted activity
Do bears displace wolves? No, Iosif’s team doesn’t observe that. “Bears and wolves tend to avoid each other in time rather than space. We also don’t see bears preying a lot on ungulates.” For wolves, he said, humans are the biggest competition through their hunting of wild pigs and deer.
Each day of the seminar has a different theme. We look at the herd conservation program to protect livestock from large predators with the breeding of the Carpathian Shepherd dogs, a very people-friendly breed for livestock guardian dogs. The Foundation Conservation Carpathia donates them to grazing animal owners for protection against bears and wolves, as well as electric fences. There are already around 60 fences FCC offered, although animal owners have to pay for the power supply and maintenance of the fence system themselves. “We have learned that something that is a complete gift is not so highly valued, so some of the equipment and maintenance is the responsibility of the farmers”, says ranger Bogdan Sulică, who works primarily in conflict management between bears and grazers, herders and the local population.
Supporting locals and creating acceptance for conservation
We learn about the “Food Hub” program for food from the region, where the FCC has bought up many areas. By marketing local products, it wants to support income opportunities for the local population that are compatible with the foundation’s conservation goals.
This should also create acceptance and support among local residents for the foundation’s major goal: a national park as permanent protection, for which the foundation will return the purchased lands to the general public. It is to be 250,000 hectares in size and encompass the Natura 2000 site Făgăraș Mountains, the already existing Piatra Craiului National Park and the Leaota Mountains.
Rangers accompany the excursion, answering countless questions about field work
Rangers like Iosif, Sulică and their colleagues Calin Serban or Liviu Ungureanu accompany us during our week in this area and answer our countless questions about the Foundation’s fields of work. We are with them around the “Biodiversity Farm” in Cobor, in the Făgăraș Mountains west of the Piatra Craiului National Park or in a primeval forest near Șinca Nouă, headquarters of the Foundation and horse farm of the Prombergers near the university town of Brașov. This is also where Andrei Dumitrescu comes from, our excursion supervisor who is as competent as he is patient, translating, organizing and answering many technical questions himself throughout the week.
Whether during breaks in lush flower meadows, on the paths and slopes of the mountains of the Făgăraș, reading the photo traps or with a GPS signal receiver on the trail of wild European bison: it’s all about the monitoring of large carnivores, conflicts with the local population and grazers, the reintroduction of beaver and bison or the reforestation of clear-cut areas. It all started with reforestation, before the targets of FCC extended, as Ranger Iosif tells us.
The foundation bought clear-cut areas to reforest them with a natural mix of tree species
“After Romania became a democracy, the state returned most of the forest here to private individuals starting in 2005. After that, there was quite a bit of chaos, and most owners monetized their property. Many thousands of hectares of forest were cut down”, he says, pointing to the fallow land on the opposite hillside. “The foundation bought clear-cut areas and reforested the land with a natural mix of tree species.”
Many thousands hectares of forest were cut down, explains ranger and wildlife biologist Ruben Iosif. He is leading the wildlife monitoring program of FCC. © Heiber
To this day, FCC is working on reforestation. Since its inception in 2009, the foundation has purchased, protected and managed forests and natural grasslands to ensure the preservation and restoration of the Carpathian Mountains’ natural ecosystem as home to Europe’s largest populations of large carnivores.
Through the work of the foundation, more than 8,000 hectares have been taken out of use
To date, it has purchased 26,900 hectares of forests and mountain grasslands. More than 830 hectares of cleared areas have been replanted with about 3 million seedlings of native tree species from its own nurseries. Also through FCC’s efforts, more than 8,000 hectares of Făgăraș Mountain forest are now protected from human encroachment, with 1,000 hectares completely untouched.
It is chilly. The canopy of the virgin beech and fir forest of Şinca on the Strâmbișoara Valley only allows rays of sunlight to seep through here and there into the golden green light. We hike through a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, famous for its main character: a 62-meter-high fir tree that is said here to be the largest tree in Europe.
In any case, the tree, which is about 200 years old, is impressive, as are the many floors of the primeval forest with its dead wood and rare species of mushrooms, which time and again cause enthusiastic shouts from the group. And of course: new questions and new answers. When we leave, it is clear to most: there must be a second time. There is simply too much to discover here for a one-time visit.
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