Bears, wolves and rewilding in Romania's Southern Carpathian mountains

The old ways still linger in Romania’s Southern Carpathian mountains, where bears and wolves wander the forests and slow-paced villages stud the hills. 

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Spring has reached central Romania. The little dwelling is half-hidden by pear blossom and lilac trees. A well can be seen in the garden, sunlight patches the long grass and the wolf-prowled hills beyond. The house has a neat timber balcony and a frieze of blue flowers at the eaves, but the plasterwork is crumbling. For over seven decades, this was the home of anti-communist activist Elisabeta Rizea, who died in 2003, aged 91. It now stands empty, looking out across the elder woods and hay meadows. 

When a Soviet-installed government took over after the Second World War, Rizea, like many locals, gravitated to the resistance movement. She helped partisan fighters in the surrounding mountains, a role that twice saw her imprisoned. Despite being tortured, she remained true to her ideals, earning a visit to her hillside home from the long-exiled Romanian monarch, King Michael I, after communist rule was ended by an uprising in 1989. During the visit, Rizea told reporters, “They took everything from us... Still, what they could not take was our soul.”

In many ways, Rizea’s values and beliefs reflect the soul of the region. Her cottage is found in Nucsoara, a remote village that still moves to older, quieter rhythms. The capital city, Bucharest, is a three-hour drive south east, but may as well be light years away. The slopes around the village swell out in sage-green folds and its houses come with cherry trees, log piles and hand-tied grapevines. Every so often, a pothole-dodging car or horse-drawn cart winds along the road, stirring dogs from their slumber. Women in headscarves tend the onion beds, the occasional curl of woodsmoke drifts from a chimney. Barely a minute passes without the call of a cuckoo. 

The softly spoken local mayor, Ion Cojocaru, smiles as he stares across the valley. “When my friends and I were boys, these hills were our playground,” he says. We’re talking outside Nucsoara’s Orthodox church, its two pale domes luminous in the afternoon light. Two years ago, after his wife died suddenly, Ion found solace in daily woodland walks. On one of these strolls, an idea struck him, and a project was born. Ion went on to select 2,544 individual beech trees — one for every metre of height of nearby Moldoveanu, Romania’s highest mountain — to be adopted by visitors, whose details and, should they wish, life stories are embedded in QR codes fixed to the trunks. The trees (mossy beauties all) are between 50 and 350 years old. Ion hopes the money raised will fund new local hiking trails. 

This sense of pride in the land, and through it a way of giving travellers reasons to come calling, is encountered a lot in the Southern Carpathians. I’m here as part of a week-long stay, hopping between the historical regions of Wallachia and Transylvania. The landscapes are savagely handsome, with snow-capped summits rising above rumpled highlands. On arrival at the city of Brasov, I’m greeted by thick drizzle before setting off by road past the rain-lashed outline of Bran Castle, famous as the possible inspiration for Dracula’s castle. Within an hour, I’m swallowed up in a rustic fantasy of haylofts, butterflies and sunshine. 

Yet, I’m here to do more than coo at the mountains. This part of Romania is the site of a rewilding project that it’s hoped will eventually result in Europe’s largest forest national park. Logging and overhunting have been scourges here, but things are changing. It has more large carnivores — bears, wolves and lynx — than anywhere else in the continent. Since 2009, the nonprofit organisation Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) has been working to ensure the peaks, woods and wildlife become not just safe from further degradation but restored and defended. 

To call the project ambitious would be an understatement. So far, the FCC has placed around 105sq miles of land under protection, with hunting banned in a further 200sq miles. 

At the same time, it’s tapping into ecotourism by offering travel experiences in and around the proposed national park, from cabins for wildlife-spotting in the mountains to an equestrian trail-riding centre and an organic farm. It’s also working to attract visitors to Nucsoara. The village has recently seen the opening of Caezu, a guesthouse with a red-brick fireplace, homemade soups and potent plum brandy. It has strong local roots, too: the owner’s great-grandmother was the sister of Elisabeta Rizea. 

During my stay here, I’m taken on one of the FCC’s newly created adventures, a three-hour scramble through Valea Ulmului. This gorge is accessible only by abseiling down the cliff face. Doing so feels like descending into a lost world, with fresh bear footprints in the mud and steep banks of beech and elm on both sides. My guides are off-duty mountain rescue workers. Every bend in the creek bed brings another natural obstacle — a rocky overhang, a wild raspberry thicket, a jungle of roots — and the overall effect is of a quest into an unknown land. As if to highlight the gorge’s isolation, we find a red deer antler in the mud.  Back at Caezu, my boots drying, I get speaking to Paula Nastase, who grew up here in Nucsoara and now helps run the guesthouse. Has she ever felt the urge to move, to head to the city? “Look outside. The air’s fresh, we have mountains all around us,” she says. She’s polite, but I can tell she pities me for the question. “Who’d want to leave?” 

Europe’s Yellowstone

Six pairs of eyes stare out from the pine trees. The wild bison have coats the colour of conkers and heads the size of boulders. We’ve chanced upon a herd of them near a quiet country road, their presence almost masked by the forest despite the animals each weighing over half a tonne. Their horns shine in the dappled sunlight. The creatures make for a momentous sight — not least because hunting forced them into extinction here in the mid-18th century.

Christoph Promberger, co-founder of the FCC, oversaw the reintroduction of eight European bison into the Fagaras Mountains, a range within the Southern Carpathians, in May 2020. It’s been a woolly, snorting success story. Calves have since been born in the wild and additional bison have been released to join the original group.

“They’re a keystone species here,” Christoph tells me, “so bringing them back has been huge.” Beavers, another creature lost locally, have also been reintroduced; dams and lodges can now be seen on the rivers again. “I want to see vultures back here, too,” he adds. “It’s going to be more complicated, but they’re the last piece of the wildlife jigsaw.”  Returning a mountain ecosystem to the shape it was in centuries earlier is no easy task, but Bavarian Christoph and his Austrian wife Barbara know all about doggedness. They met here in the 1990s as academics studying large carnivores. Their devotion to their work saw them buy two wolf cubs from a nearby fur farm and spend a decade raising them, learning from their behaviour. “It was sometimes challenging,” says Christoph. His leg has the scars to prove it.  

Christoph takes me to a blustery hilltop, where peaks crest around us like ocean waves. “The Fagaras Mountains contain some of Europe’s last remaining expanses of old-growth forest,” he says, as a lesser spotted eagle glides imperiously overhead. “But back then, there was so much deforestation happening.” After the fall of communism, parcels of woodland were returned en masse from the state to the families who’d owned them generations earlier. The problem — a colossal one — was that this led to mass levels of unsanctioned logging, with countless acres of mature forest being razed to the ground.  

“We set up the FCC to do something about it,” says Christoph. Starting out as a team of two, they attracted the support of dozens of trusts, foundations and philanthropists. As well as purchasing land, they bid successfully for hunting concessions, enabling them to ban shooting and implement wildlife-monitoring. The FCC’s directors now include rewilding heavyweights Paul Lister, owner of the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the Scottish Highlands, and Charlie Burrell, co-owner of Sussex’s Knepp Estate. More tellingly, around 200 locals have been given employment in roles such as rangers and wardens, and more than 2.5 million saplings have been planted. The aim is for the park to become a kind of European Yellowstone, benefiting not just biodiversity but local communities too.  

Villages surround the proposed national park on all sides, and at the heart of the project is recognition that community involvement will be key to the project’s long-term success. One example is the smart residential education centre that’s been built for local schoolchildren. The protected area itself, however, is completely free from human habitation. That’s not to say, of course, that visitors aren’t welcome. Accompanied by local guide Radu Micu, I head out on a long, hot hike into the slopes above the Dambovita River to reach the Comisu 1 wildlife hide, one of three mountain cabins the FCC makes available for overnight stays. Every so often, we stop and stare at the view in silence. At our feet are sphagnum mosses and shimmering slabs of quartz; surrounding us on all sides are the sun-struck mountains. 

The cabin sits at an altitude of around 1,860 metres and is many miles from the nearest settlement. I’m expecting a fairly basic bothy, but the wooden structure is a neat, crescent shape and has a turf roof, two bunk beds and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto a cloudless panorama of spruce, snow and alpine meadow. Radu produces cold bottles — Ursus, a Romanian beer whose logo is a bear — and we clamber onto the roof to revel in our seclusion. We can see huge swathes of intact old-growth forest, punctuated by smaller patches of brown where the trees have been felled. “I like this place,” Radu says, as snuffling wild boar appear on the slopes.

When the sun drops, he lights the wood-burner and whips up a wild garlic pesto to have with pasta. A bottle of local Cabernet Sauvignon is opened. The stars and planets appear — Venus twinkling in the west, then a whole blanket of galaxies spreading overhead in the dark. Sleep comes easily as the wilderness breathes and hoots around us.     

Mountain life

In the morning, I step outside the cabin into a meadow carpeted in thousands of pink crocuses. Beyond are thick spruce woods tangled with rhododendron and juniper. Black woodpeckers tap out drumbeats, capercaillies bustle amid the trees in preference to flight, and deer quickstep through towering stands of fir. A pair of bison emerge from the shade to graze in the sun. In the distance, fearsome ridges crown the horizon. 

Radu takes us above the tree line and onto the snowfields, which linger here until midsummer. We climb for two hours until we reach the 2,300-metre summit of Berevoescu, its flanks covered in untouched snow. There are parts of Europe where it would be unthinkable for a mountain like this not to be awash with chair lifts and piste-bashers. Here, there’s just us and the view. 

When we’ve had our fill, we make the long walk down the slopes to another overnight cabin. Slightly larger and more comfortable than Comisu 1, it sleeps six and looks out across a clearing in the woods. Bears are the big draw here — wolves and lynx, although numerous, are notoriously elusive by comparison — but as afternoon fades into evening, no mammals appear. We content ourselves with watching coal tits in the branches and flocks of crossbills gusting through the dusk. In the Fagaras Mountains, however, patience is rewarded. 

“Bear,” comes the 6.15am whisper. The blinds don’t get closed in a wildlife hide; you wake, and the outdoors is right in front of you. The dawn sun is golden, burnishing the grass in syrupy light. The day is already alive with birdsong. And centre-stage, around 10 metres away, is a burly European brown bear, raw and real. Its fur is almost blonde. We watch it for 20 minutes, staying breathlessly still as it shuffles across the clearing on heavy paws, using its claws to dig for grubs and insects. It’s young — “probably three years old, four maybe”, says Radu — but exudes an electrifying, don’t-mess-with-me majesty. 

Despite the efforts of the communist-era president Nicolae Ceausescu, who reportedly shot around 400 of the animals, more than 6,000 bears are thought to live in the Romanian countryside. Their fondness for livestock and other easy food sources means conflict with shepherds and villagers can be problematic. This, too, ties in with the work being done by the FCC. Not only is it breeding Carpathian Shepherd dogs — a hulking breed known for deterring bears without harming them — it’s also pledged to replace any sheep killed by bears. Further proof that, for the national park project to succeed, keeping local communities onside is paramount. 

I finish my trip by leaving the protected area and travelling into southern Transylvania, for a more gentle day-walk. I meet guide Ionut Bordea at the hilltop resort of Amfiteatrul Transilvania. It’s a staggeringly beautiful spot, with pine-clad valleys rippling off in all directions and dozens of Bucharest day-trippers to lap it all up, but under Ionut’s guidance we soon descend into the hush of the lower slopes. He can name every one of the craggy summits that stud the skyline. He points out redstarts, copper butterflies and wild sorrel. Ionut tells me, with a wry smile, that when he was a boy, during the communist era, his parents worked at a nearby bicycle factory that, in reality, produced artillery and ammunition. 

Such quirks and complexities are part of life here. “The rural existence can be very hard,” he says, explaining how most young people here have no desire to become shepherds and smallholders. “Preserving the old way of life is never easy. But look at where we are,” Ionut adds. On the hills around us, the meadows and fir woods look like a tableau from another time. Along the country road below us, cars file away from a church honking their horns in celebration of a local wedding. And on the peaks above us, way up there in the sun-hazed distance, hungry grizzlies and invisible packs of steely-eyed wolves still pad through the forests. As Elisabeta Rizea understood, the soul of a place is worth holding onto tightly. 

Published in the Sept 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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