The crowd surges forward against the barrier, cameraphones are held aloft, children are hoisted on to shoulders. The celebrities, the first European bison about to set their hooves in this remote Romanian valley in the southern Carpathian mountains for two centuries, wait in the shadows of a huge trailer.
The forest, already home to bears and packs of wolves, is the final destination for 17 of Europe’s largest land mammal, some of whom have been travelling hitched to lorries for five days from as far as Sweden. It will be their first time out of captivity.
The release of the animals into the wild is one of the biggest in Europe since reintroductions began in the 1950s, establishing wild populations in Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Belarus, Russia, Lithuania, and Kryygzstan. More will be reintroduced each year, with an aim of having 500 in the mountains eventually.
Bison bonasus was driven to extinction in the wild across Europe in 1927 after decades of decline from hunting and habitat loss. But it has become that rare endangered species: a conservation success story.
There are now thousands in the wild, all descended from the 54 individuals in captivity when the last wild one was killed in Poland’s Bialowieza forest.
Despite the increase in numbers, the European bison is still rarer than other high profile species, such as the black rhino, even with the reintroductions. There are over 5,000 European bison, with about 3,200 in the wild.
Frans Schepers, managing director of the Netherlands-based charity behind the release last weekend, Rewilding Europe, said: “It has a big symbolic value, bringing back animals. I’ve done that a lot in Africa, with rhinos and elephants, but in Europe it is very rare. Releasing animals, giving them space, is a sign of hope, it shows that if we choose, we can help wildlife come back.”
The hulking, hairy beasts, some standing nearly two metres tall and and weighing as much as 1,000kg, have not been seen in this part of Romania for generations. “But it has never quite disappeared from our minds and souls,” says Adrian Hagatis, project manager at WWF Romania.
One of the founding legends of Moldovia, in Romania’s east, centres around a Romanian nobleman, Dragoș, killing a bison, an act which some say was once a prerequisite for joining the country’s army. The herbivore is a symbol of national pride, and several nearby places still carry bison-related names.
But for Romania, the second poorest country in the EU after Bulgaria, bringing back bison is not just of cultural importance, it is also an economic imperative.
Anne Juganaru, secretary of state for the environment and climate change, says the country’s challenge will be balancing protecting large tracts of untouched wildnerness – a rarity in Europe, and seen as a potential source of future tourism income – with the need to develop.
“It’s wonderful that we have this treasure of nature. But we have a dilemma: we have to maintain the balance between developing the economy and looking after protected areas. It’s not so easy to have this balance.”
That dilemma was laid bare last year, during protests of thousand of people across Romania at plans to build Europe’s largest gold mine in nearby Rosia Montana town. Critics said the mine would destroy four mountain tops and cyanide used in the mining process could leach into water sources. The parliament was forced to shelve a law paving the way for the mine.
And in the region where the bison were released, jobs beyond farming are still in great demand.
“Local people were reserved at the beginning [about the bison plan], they didn’t believe this could happen,” said Petru Vela, the mayor of Armenis, the nearest village several miles along a bumpy, unpaved road usually reserved for the forestry officials who care for this virtually untouched part of the Carpathian range, the Tarcu mountains. “But as the project went on, they started to believe in it and now they are excited about the jobs.” Two local men have been trained and employed as rangers to monitor poaching, and a visitor centre is planned.
“It’s a source of pride for us, the bison,” says Nicolae Vetres, a construction worker from Armenis, who normally fishes for trout in the surrounding countryside. A trio of teenage boys say they are here as an alternative to their usual Saturdays of Facebook and football. One boasts he has seen bison before, recalling a visit to a managed reserve in Hateg, 40 miles away, where one of today’s cows, Romanitsa, is coming from.
As the time nears for the release, the crowds build up, among them officials from local and central government, conservationists from across Europe, local priest and other villagers. Numbers swell to 250, and the place starts to resemble a small festival.
But then the first bison lorry gets stuck on the muddy track. Having travelled thousands of miles, in some cases from zoos in Sweden, Germany, Italy and Belgium, it appears they might not be able to make the final 30 metres to the finish line.
The bison is just one of several species including wolves, lynx, beavers and eagles that are making a comeback across Europe due to conservation efforts, according to a report by the Zoological Society of London last year.
Rewilding Europe, and other ecologists say the trend of farmers abandoning relatively unproductive land in Europe, and recession, has also made space for many species to return to the wild. However, a Romanian forestry expert said the “trend was already a history in Romania” as international investors buy up land.
In the Tarcu mountains, the bison will influence both people and the landscape. They are known as a ‘keystone’ or ‘umbrella’ species, capable of altering whole ecosystems through a series of knock-on effects. The wolf is another such keystone species, whose reintroduction in Yellowstone park in the US in 1995 deterred deer in some areas, helped vegetation recover and trees grow higher, stabilise soil erosion, ultimately changing rivers.
As grazers eating a huge amount of grass and herbs each day, the bison will create open spaces, meadows and glades, in the forests, which in turn will bring insects and birds. They will spread seed in their dung and their hooves will break up the soil, allowing vegetation to grow. Griffon vultures may one day be reintroduced here as the area changes, conservationists hope.
Back at the release site, a huge forestry vehicle helps to overcome the mud. The bison are now on the brink of freedom.
The Orthodox priest sings an Easter prayer, blessing the animals as he flicks holy water from a sprig of basil. A local boy and girl, dressed in traditional dress of a feather-filled hat, black waistcoat and a lacey white shirt, cut a ribbon in Romania flag colours of yellow, blue and red, the boy then rushes to grab his digital camera, chewing gum all the while.
The bison, skittish and nervous despite their huge size, walk off the lorries and up the path to their 15 hectare (150 acres) site (in September their range will expand to 160 hectare). Two of them lock their short horns and tussle – a good sign, the conservationists say, as it shows the animals are healthy enough to fight.
The final cow, apparently reluctant to leave her transport, finally comes out with surprising speed. She stops, nibbles the grassy verge, turns, and trots off through the trees.
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