Bear Necessities

Contrary to some understandings Romania is a rich country in many ways, perhaps none more so than in sheer, unrestrained natural beauty and splendour particularly with her abundance of flora and fauna and wilderness. OZB speaks with one individual who has spent the last 24 years working to ensure this remains the case for generations to come.

By Douglas Williams

Mother nature’s recipes

We live in times when talk of the natural world is invariably negative. We hear about vast tracts of jungle disappearing at a staggering rate, more and more species endangered, almost certain extinction just around the corner for many of the planet’s big mammals, and yet here, in this corner of Europe, the story isrefreshingly different. Romania has one of the healthiest populations of brown bears in the world. In addition Romania is home to nearly 3,000 wolves and to the elusive and exquisitely beautiful lynx.

Partly this is due to the geography, sprawling, untouched forests and sparsely populated mountainous regions, and partly this is due to social and historicalfactors. This isn’t to say there aren’t threats nor that these magical animals’ status is guaranteed but it is something that all Romanians can and do feel very proud of and rightly so.

One man has dedicated his life to studying and protecting the above-mentioned species and the wilderness they require to survive. His name is Christoph Promberger and he has spent the last 24 years living in Romania working to create the biggest contiguous, gazetted area of pristine wilderness to best enable the brown bear to continue to prosper.

Promberger, 51, grew up in a forester’s family in Bavaria. He studied forestry but focused on biology and ecology and has worked to conserve large carnivores and the wild places they inhabit ever since. He is the Executive Director of Carpathian organisation dedicated to protecting Romanian wilderness from illegal logging and hunting.

We spoke with Promberger to get his take on bears, wilderness and Romania:

As a biologist whose professional life is centred around large mammals, principally bears, can you recall a particular point, a particular incident or discovery that switched you on to these creatures perhaps when you were a child?

Not as a child, but when I was a student I read a book about wolves (Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat), which fascinated me. Some months later I spent a couple of months in the North of Canada and on a canoe trip down the Yukon River. One full moon night two wolves came out onto a clearing right in front of me and they began howling! It was a magical moment that completely turned me onto wolves.

Do you recall your first experience of seeing one of the large mammals in the wild – bears, wolves etc where, when, how did you feel?

My first direct encounters with carnivores were rather scary – I had read “Bear Attacks” by Stephen Herrero and was very scared of bears when I went into the Canadian Northwest for the first time. I did see a couple of bears from far away but nothing happened. It took a couple of years until I overcame my fear – now I am not scared anymore. I have respect for bears, not fear. I have never had any fear of wolves, just a great admiration and excitement when seeing them.

When did you first come to Romania, why did you come and how was it then, what was it about the place that led you to move here and live here for so long?

I came first time in 1992 to evaluate the opportunities to start a wolf research project. I moved here in 1993, thought I would stay for three years, and I never left. Romania offers such unique and beautiful nature and a quality of life that is beyond everything I could have in Germany.

How important are bears, wolves, lynx etc to the environment, the ecology of Romania, what do they mean to the country, what is their value both economically and otherwise?

Just take a look into Scotland, a country that cleared all its forests and killed all its carnivores. Due to the overabundance of deer, forests cannot regrow and the country has turned into an ecological dessert (with a beautiful landscape, so most people do not see the devastated state of the ecosystem). Carnivores arethe top predators, and without top predators, any ecosystem suffers. An overabundance of herbivores causes tremendous economic damage and, last but not least, carnivores are charismatic species wherever they live. People like to observe them and are willing to pay significant amounts of money to s so. So if a country has carnivores, it has also the opportunity to make money from people who will pay to see them.

How threatened are these creatures in Romania, what are the main threats and are these threats combatable?

At the moment, in most areas of the Carpathians carnivores are still relatively abundant. However, development of the mountain areas, increasing pressure of trophy hunters, heavy poaching on ungulates (as the main prey of carnivores), and bad wildlife management all cause serious and unnecessary problems for carnivores and their relation to humans. All these threats would be combatable; it just needs the political will and a strong support against the hunting lobby from the civil society.

What does Carpathia do, how does it do that and how successful, what are the major achievements and goals?

The CARPATHIA project aims to establish the largest forest National Park in Europe, an iconic park, a European Yellowstone. We do this by purchasing forests and alpine grasslands for full protection, by restoring the original ecosystem, by protecting wildlife, and by developing conservation and sustainable development programmes with local communities.

How did Wild Carpathia come about?

The CARPATHIA project started as an initiative to stop the illegal clear-felling in Piatra Craiului National Park as a result of the restitution of forests in 2005. We first intended to only purchase forests inside the National Park, but then started to see the potential to buy forests also outside the current park boundaries with the goal to create a Fagaras Mountains National Park.

Do you think Romanians have a different relationship with rural life than western European countries and perhaps by extension with the wilderness that is so important for the survival of these species?

Due to the long and difficult years during communism, Romanians have been cut off from Western-style economic development for many decades. Today, this suddenly becomes an advantage as a lot of nature has remained here – the country is not yet overdeveloped as the Western countries are. Most Romanians  still remember a peasant country-life from their childhood and this means that many have still more understanding for and interest in nature.

Carpathia European Wilderness Reserve aims to create a world-class wilderness reserve in the Southern Romanian Carpathians, large enough to support significant numbers of large carnivores and to allow evolutionary processes to happen. The foundation contributes to the conservation and restoration of the natural Carpathian ecosystem, for the benefit of biodiversity and local communities, by acquiring, protecting and administrating forests and natural grasslands. Thanks to the fine work of Carpathia there is now 28,300 hectares of hunting free forest, 17,137 hectares under full protection (so no hunting or logging) and nearly 800,000 trees have been planted by the organisation. Find out more about the work Carpathia does, how you can get involved and how you can donate at www.carpathia.org/en.

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