Matei said there was a lot of local skepticism when the rewilding program first came here in 2014. However, this view changed a few years later when the ecotourism project started. “We released these bison into the wild and the locals basically agreed to live on their land and now we have to give them something back,” said Matei, explaining every aspect of our trip, from meals to transportation to family rentals. Outside the guesthouse, it was taken care of by the villagers.
Matei left for the evening, and soon after, a middle-aged couple arrived and removed foil-wrapped ceramic plates from their car. We sat at a long wooden table in the courtyard while steaming a delicious local specialty like grilled meat, local cheese, tomato vinegar and matzo ball soup spread. Before we started, they insisted that we shoot their homemade plum brandy and then waited for us to report our enjoyment, an unpleasant procedure that would be repeated at almost every meal we ate in the Romanian countryside.
Early the next morning, Matei and a driver picked us up in a huge, battered pickup truck, and we drove to the base camp, where we were greeted by about 100 sheep and a handful of them, on an idyllic hillside filled with blooming apple trees and camping tents. enthusiastic shepherd dogs. We dropped our bags while Matei chatted with the young, tough-looking, chain-smoking shepherd leaning on a wooden cane. Then we went to the mountains.
The forest that surrounds us is huge beech trees and pines, most of them hundreds of years old. The Carpathians encompass the largest area of uninterrupted forest on the continent, as well as the highest concentrations of brown bears, wolves and lynxes, and more than a third of all European plant species.
For thousands of years, the European bison, a close relative of the American bison, roamed these mountains, part of a habitat stretching from southern France to the Volga River and the Caucasus. Its ancestor, the steppe bison, appears in cave paintings that are more than 35,000 years old.
As human populations expanded and cut forests, bison’s range decreased and were in danger of being hunted by the turn of the century. The last wild European bison was killed by poachers in the Russian Caucasus in 1927. By then, fewer than 50 individuals remained, all kept in zoos. Projects to save the bison began almost immediately in Germany and Poland, where the first bison was resettled in the Białowieża Forest in 1952. Breeding programs and resettlement continued for the rest of the century, with more than 2,000 free animals by 2010. -The bison roaming Europe.