The largely wild and unspoiled Făgăraș Mountains in Romania are on their way to becoming a European park as spectacular as North America’s Yellowstone or Africa’s Serengeti, thanks to a man who has been captivated by wolves since childhood and the vision of a Swiss billionaire.
The incredible story really begins when wildlife biologist Christoph Promberger, the son, grandson and great-grandson of foresters, went to northern Canada in 1990 to research wolves for his university dissertation. Support from the German outdoor apparel company Jack Wolfskin provided a good backpack, sleeping bag, and functional clothing for his stay in a remote Yukon cabin.
“In 1988, a handwritten letter with a request for top-rate gear to embark on a grand adventure led to the first contact between Christoph Promberger and Jack Wolfskin,” the company says. “It was the start of an extraordinary relationship, as it did not take long before Jack Wolfskin came knocking on the wolf researcher’s door.”
In 1991, Jack Wolfskin launched an initiative to assist in the conservation of wolves, and got in touch with the Wildbiologische Gesellschaft München e.V. (WGM), which was headed by Promberger’s former wildlife biology professor. He recruited Promberger to help WGM organize the first international conference on the conservation status and problems of wolves.
It was at that conference that Promberger learned that some 3,000 wolves lived in Romania, so he went there in the summer of 1992. “I first thought I would stay here for four years, finish my dissertation and then go somewhere else,” he says. “It has now been 26 years, and I am still here.”
After Barbara came to work on the Carpathian Large Carnivore Project, the couple married and decided to stay in Romania when the carnivore study ended in 2003.They founded Equus Silvania, an equestrian centre and guesthouse 15 miles from Piatra Craiului National Park. Here, three hours north of Bucharest, they brought up two daughters, tended 35 horses, raised pigs, chicken, geese and ducks, and grew a large variety of fruits and vegetables.
Foundation Conservation Carpathia
But around them, they could see the area’s forests – Europe’s last remaining virgin forest outside of Russia – being destroyed. Starting in 2005, as formerly nationalized forests were restituted to private people in Romania, massive clear-cuts happened as thousands of hectares of forests were illegally logged, threatening the integrity of the Carpathian ecosystem.
“We are trying to repair the mistakes of the past,” Angela Boghiu of the FCC’s main office in nearby Brașov told a visiting magazine writer. “Communism took the forest from the people but then the government gave it back, and it didn’t matter if that forest was now part of a protected area. It was the Golden Age of illegal clear-cutting.”
Reader’s Digest explains what happened next.
In 2007, a guest called Hedi Wyss visited the Prombergers. Enthusiastic about saving the national park, she arranged for her brother, Swiss biotechnics multi-billionaire Hansjoerg Wyss, the second richest man in Switzerland, to visit Equus Silvania.
“Our plan revolved around saving the Piatra Craiului National Park, which was being ravaged,” says Christoph. “But Hansjoerg was already dreaming of bigger things.“ He said he’d help on two conditions. The first was that our original plan for the park on our doorstep was too small. He wanted it ultimately to encompass much more land. The second was to attract more people to support the idea, so it didn’t rest on the shoulders of one person.
Just before Christmas 2009, Foundation Conservation Carpathia was founded by 12 philanthropists and conservationists with the goal of protecting Carpathian forests for future generations by purchasing land and leasing hunting rights with private and public money. So, as it turned out, the cause of the problem – the state’s privatization of the Carpathian forests – also proved to be part of the solution.
Foundation Conservation Carpathia is now the largest nature conservation project in Europe, working to restore natural ecosystems in the Carpathian Mountains. Since 2009, it has saved over 27,000 hectares of forests and alpine meadows from logging by acquiring them for conservation purposes, bought and restored more than 1,991 hectares of clear-cuts, alpine pastures, and spruce monocultures, planted over 4.1 million saplings, created nine tree nurseries, conducted erosion control works on over 30 km of former tractor tracks, and created a 78,000 ha no-hunting and no trophy hunting zone. Along with specialized FCC staff, an average of 200 seasonal workers were hired from the local communities.
Foundation Conservation Carpathia
And in 2019, it began restoring two keystone species often known as ecosystem engineers because of how they support biodiversity – the European bison, killed off in the wild in the Caucasus in 1927 but reintroduced in Poland in 1954 and Romania in 2012, and beavers, absent from Romanian rivers for almost a century. Since those first bison were reintroduced in Poland’s Białowieża forest in 1954, other European countries have followed, with wild herds now established in Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Belarus, Lithuania – and Romania.
The FCC’s project in the Făgăraș mountains is one of three working to reintroduce bison in Romania’s Carpathians, including the WWF and Rewilding Europe in the south-west, and the state forestry authority RNP Romsilva with the Vânători-Neamț natural park in the north-east.
In the fall of 2019, FCC brought the first bison back to Romania’s central forests, as part of the five-year LIFE Carpathia project, funded by the European Commission and Arcadia Fund.
In May 2020, the first eight bison were released into the wild, and in the spring of 2023, 22 bison from Sweden, Germany and Slovakia were to be released as part of the careful reintroduction, bringing the total to 58 bison released. The aim is to release 75 bison by mid-2024 and build an independent, healthy and ecologically efficient population. “In about 20 years, the [bison] will be all over the Carpathians”, Christoph told Ben Goldsmith.
The reintroduction of bison and beavers and creation of a successful model of human and wildlife interaction is one part of FCC’s five part program of work, which also includes land and forest conservation, ecological restoration, community outreach that ranges from creating direct jobs and volunteer programs to wildlife watching as part of ecotourism, and conservation enterprises to create a green economy that will bring a sustainable livelihood for local people.
As a sign of local pride for the reintroduction of the species, Lerești commune, a community at the foot of the Făgăraș mountains, has decided that the local football team will wear the bison on their competition kit, said mayor Marian Toader.
FCC’s next challenge is finding ways to link together their 1,400 properties. They are working to persuade people that leasing their land as part of a carbon payments system would be better than logging. That is part of changing how people think, to show them that abundance can be a better economic model than extraction.
Christoph thinks wild Romania could become Europe’s top ecotourism destination, surrounded as it is by 500 million Europeans, who can be attracted to their own Yellowstone or Serengeti by thematic trips, biodiversity, guest houses and so on. It will just take time and the kind of imagination that has brought it thus far. As I said, it’s an amazing story.
The Făgăraș Mountains become home for the bison – the first release into the wild. Carpathia.org, May 27, 2020
28 bison have perfectly adapted in the wild. Carpathia.org, Jul. 2, 2022
Meet the couple fighting deforestation. Reader’s Digest.
Creating ‘European Yellowstone’ in the Carpathian mountains with Christoph Promberger. Rewilding the World with Ben Goldsmith, May 17, 2023
Return of the big beast: in search of Romania’s wild bison – in pictures. The Guardian, Jun 27, 2022
Cover image: Photo by Foundation Conservation Carpathia