Wilds of Carpathia

Christoph and Barbara Promberger are the brains behind one of the most ambitious rewilding projects in Europe. Their vision is to create a wilderness reserve in the heart of the Southern Carpathians; but furthermore, they hope to energise and engage Romanian society in the celebration and conservation of this beautiful country.

Christoph had only intended to stay three years. But 24 years later, he’s still in Romania. “Romania is such a beautiful country that it makes you stay. Many people come here, fall in love and never want to leave again.”

It was in the early 1990s, only a few years after the fall of communism, that the then young German researcher headed out to study wolves in Romania, the country with the highest population of large carnivores in the European Union. Unlike in the vast lands of Alaska, Northern Scandinavia and Siberia, also known for their wolf populations, in Romania people and carnivores live together in close proximity. Yet, at the time, nothing was really known about Romanian wolves or the unique dynamic between us and them.

After setting up the Large Carnivore Project in 1993, Christoph and his small team, including a young Austrian biologist, Barbara Fuerpass, became the first to learn about wolf behaviour in Romania. Over the ten years it ran, the wolf research project evolved into a research, management, ecotourism, and conservation project, which came to encompass all large carnivores found in Romania.

Christoph Promberger pictured outside Bunea Cabin.

Charmed by Romania’s untamed nature and wild forests, following the project’s end Christoph and Barbara stayed and set up their own ecotourism company. But it wasn’t long until they yearned to return to conservation work, and they began funnelling their energies to a problem that had troubled them since they arrived: without habitats, there’s no wildlife; without forests, there are no large carnivores.

In 2007, they hatched a wild plan. “We really started with ‘let’s save these forests’, and as we moved forward we began to understand that we had to do this, and this, and this. We didn’t start with a master plan,” tells Christoph. Their idea fleshed out to become a vision to protect, preserve and rewild huge areas of wilderness in the Făgăraș Mountains, the tallest mountains in the Southern Carpathians and home to some of the most ecologically important areas of pristine forest in Europe.

Not all of the forests here are untouched though. Some have been, and some are still are under threat of being, logged, some legally, some illegally, and some by dubious dealings and backhanders. In logged areas, the tawny land is dry, dusty, scorched and cracked from years of laying bare with no tree cover to protect it and no thirsty roots to keep moisture in the ground. On the naked hills, zigzag scars of old tracks from the monstrous, heavy-tyred forestry vehicles are easily seen, their trenches deepening with each rainfall, turning them into rushing rivers, furthering soil erosion. In places where the ancient forests have been replaced, draughty monocultures of quick-grow spruce now dominate.

Determined to stop more woodland from meeting the same fate, the Prombergers founded Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) in 2009 with the mission to create a world-class wilderness reserve that supports thriving biodiversity, protects the natural landscapes, and allows for a new, non destructive economy to prosper in the Făgăraș Mountains. This reserve, which they one day hope will become a national park, aspires to be a sizeable 250,000 hectares. But the Prombergers and FCC don’t intend to purchase the total amount of land, just enough to strong-arm the state into also placing neighbouring state-owned forests into full protection. “We won’t buy everything; we can’t buy everything. We’ll probably buy 40-50,000 hectares or so, and then with that we’ll go to the state and leverage our properties. We’ll say that we’ll put it all in full conservation and donate it to the state, but you have to put all your properties in this region into full conservation too,” asserts Christoph. “Just the idea of buying land and then donating it to the state is incredible because it is the most convincing argument [for conservation].” Ultimately, the intention is for the full 250,000 hectares to be a state-owned and state-managed national park, with a sturdy legal framework to preserve the area’s unique ecosystems and wildlife into the future.

The work began with land procurement, not just of pristine forests but of damaged land too, with the FCC taking up the mammoth task of ecological restoration through tree planting and reparation of the old forestry tracks. However, with such a hefty vision comes a hefty bill, so they’ve created an innovative funding model that amalgamates public grants, ecotourism revenue and wildland philanthropy. Wildland philanthropy or conservation philanthropy, the purchasing of land in order to protect and preserve it in its wild condition, is how the FCC got off the ground. With the promise to protect and restore some of Europe’s most precious havens for wilderness, they approached wealthy donors who, thanks to the Prombergers’ charismatic appeal and ability to impassion people with their vision, supported the project.

Pictured above is Bunea Cabin, a new addition to the project that the FCC hope will encourage people to visit this incredible wilderness area, which will contribute financially to their conservation work. The cosy, luxury cabin is located in one of the wildest parts of the south-eastern Făgăraș Mountains, more than 30 km from the next settlement, where brown bears, wild boar, red deer, and foxes, sometimes even wolves, regularly roam. Built in 2016, it was designed and sited to have minimal environmental impact, and was built with local timber by craftsmen from the nearby village. To work in harmony with nature, only biodegradable or environmentally friendly cleaning products are used, the bathroom is fitted with a compost toilet and shower with a solar module, and all food and beverages are 100% organic. Bunea Cabin was built for wildlife watching and wilderness experiences, and aims to become an important model of sustainable tourism in the area. All services are provided by the local community, and profits are exclusively used to enhance and restore nature within the Făgăraș Mountains.

With 20,000 hectares now secured, as soon as a plot in the Făgăraș Mountains’ patchwork of many land owners becomes available, they rally donors and seize the opportunity to purchase it. But as a German-Austrian couple, purchasing land is not always smooth sailing. Painted by some as “foreign land grabbers”, they’ve had to endure the raw end of scaremongering and slander from the “timber mafia” and land developers who peddle the idea that the Prombergers have a hidden agenda. But Christoph and Barbara didn’t get into conservation to be popular, and they aren’t intimidated by these smears. It helps of course that they have support from many locals, particularly those in villages near the project area. People’s attitude towards deforestation and logging has changed too: “People have woken up to what was going on [with illegal logging and corruption in the past], and have changed their mentality and perception," explains Iulia Florea, the FCC’s lead wilderness guide. “The public is much more informed now, and there is a new generation of young people who understand the problems and are influencing change.”

This steady change in public opinion and the Romanian perception of wilderness is the key to conservation in Romania. There’s a whole host of societal factors at play in influencing such change, though according to the Prombergers, one major contributor is that in recent times Romania’s middle class has grown and the country has become more prosperous, which, together with Romania joining the EU, has led to more travel abroad. Christoph explains: “People in Romania were locked up, first for political reasons and then for economic reasons, and they didn’t even realise how beautiful their own country is. People need to be able to compare things, and as long as they couldn’t compare it, they saw it as that’s just how it is. Once they ventured out and saw how the rest of the world is, they came back and appreciated it much more.”

Simultaneously, Romania has progressively become a more desirable tourist destination, visited for its rugged mountains and endless forests of bountiful wildlife, which has helped awaken Romanians to the rare marvel they have. “People are rediscovering their country”, smiles Barbara. “They are being inspired by foreign tourists.” In turn, locals are beginning to develop wilderness-centric ecotourism offerings, which is encouraging them to learn more about their natural landscapes.

In inciting a sense of pride and ownership, a paradigm shift is triggered: for that which you cherish, you wish to protect and preserve. As shown by the recent movement against trophy hunting – a pastime of the political elite – when there’s an appetite for change from the masses, policies can be influenced, and when policies reflect people’s desire to preserve the land, conservation can truly have a stronghold in Romania.

It is this possibility – the changing of the tide in public opinion on the country’s wild places, influencing policy change and engaging people in conservation – that underpins the Prombergers work. For them, it works four-fold: conservation through land acquisition; generating local interest through the development of ecotourism; monitoring wildlife to acquire real data on species populations; and restoring and institutionalising a place where people can come and experience the wilderness for generations to come. Through all this, they hope to add a new narrative for wilderness and its conservation in Romania. In just the same way many Americans are proud of institutions such as Yellowstone National Park, the Prombergers hope that Romanians will feel proud to protect and conserve the last truly wild places in continental Europe.

“If we manage to turn the country around that would be historical. And even if we don’t manage that and we only manage to achieve a 250,000-hectare national park, that’s still monumental. And even if we only achieve a 35,000-hectare national park we would still have created something that makes a huge difference. This is how I look at it. I’m not thinking too much about our chances of success; I think just go for it and do it.”

Christoph calmly continues: “To see that you can have an impact on things – that you can have an impact on the environment, and have a positive impact on other people’s lives, and have an impact on the development of a society – even if the impact is small, it can make all the difference.”

Since they arrived, the Prombergers have been changing the face of conservation in Romania. First with the Large Carnivore Project, which went on to develop conservation and ecotourism arms – the first ecotourism venture in the whole of the country. They helped foster numerous new ecotourism projects, as well as set up their own. And now, they have set themselves the colossal task of creating a protected wilderness reserve in one of the most important natural landscapes on the continent. But more than this, they are building an institution for future generations to enjoy and inspiring people, from Romania and abroad alike, to be proud of their wild places, to protect them, care for them, and celebrate them. •

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This story is from Volume Nine

The Wilderness Volume

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