On safari in the Transylvanian Alps, where bison once again roam

There was a lot of local skepticism when the reconstruction program first came here in 2014, Matei said. But opinion changed once the ecotourism project started a few years later. “We released these bison into the wild and the locals agreed to let them live on their land basically, and now we have to give something back to them,” Matei said, explaining every aspect of our trip, from meals to transportation to family rentals. outside the guest house, it would be managed by the villagers.

Matei left for the night, and soon after a middle-aged couple arrived, taking ceramic plates wrapped in aluminum foil from their car. We sat at a long wooden table on the patio as they unveiled a steaming assortment of grilled meat, local cheese, pickled tomatoes, and a delicious local specialty similar to matzah ball soup. Before we began, they insisted that we take shots of their homemade plum brandy, and then waited expectantly for us to signal our enjoyment, a not unpleasant procedure that would be repeated for virtually every meal we had in the Romanian countryside.

Early the next morning, Matei and a driver picked us up in a huge beat-up pickup and drove to base camp, an idyllic hillside farm dotted with blooming apple trees and tents, where we were greeted by about 100 sheep and a handful of of enthusiastic sheepdogs. We dropped off our bags while Matei chatted with the pastor, a young, tough-looking chain smoker wearing wellies and leaning on a wooden cane. Then we headed towards the mountains.

The forest closed around us, enormous beech and pine trees, many of them centuries old. The Carpathians encompass the largest area of ​​intact 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 that stretched from southern France to the Volga River and the Caucasus. Its ancestor, the steppe bison, appears in cave paintings over 35,000 years old.

As human populations expanded and cleared the forests, the bison’s range dwindled, and by the turn of the century, they had been hunted to near extinction. The last wild European bison was killed by poachers in the Russian Caucasus in 1927. By then there were fewer than 50 left, all in zoos. Projects to save bison began almost immediately in Germany and Poland, where the first reintroduction of bison took place in Białowieża Forest in 1952. Breeding programs and reintroductions continued for the rest of the century and, to As of 2010, there were more than 2,000 free bison. -Wandering bison in Europe.

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