The wild may not be as far away as you think it is. Safaris in Europe offer the chance to meet nature close up, and support projects that make the continent wilder.
A couple of summers ago, Rina Quinlan was driving through Italy, about to begin a guided hike in the mountains. In the road ahead, they saw a small group of people. The guide stopped the car and got out. A woman spoke to him excitedly in Italian. “She had just seen a bear walk across the road,” says Rina. “She had lived there all her life and it was the first time she’d seen one.”
This was one of a number of times that Rina almost – almost – came face-to-face with the elusive Marsican brown bear. She was on a trip run by the European Safari Company, which organises wildlife tours in various sites around Europe. It’s part of Rewilding Europe, a charity that works to give nature space to take care of itself. Holidays booked through the European Safari Company help fund rewilding, and build up the local nature-based economies that are key to its success.
“We saw Marsican brown bear poo, which we were very excited about,” she says. “We saw scratch marks on trees. We saw the chamois, which were beautiful, red deer – lots of red deer – and choughs, these lovely birds with really red beaks. The beech woods are incredible, and you come into an alpine area with beautiful lakes"
“We hiked up to this mountaintop and spent time watching chamois as the sun went down. As we walked back down it got dark and we were just seeing glow worms everywhere. You know that wolves and bears are everywhere too – just the knowledge you’ve got them there where you’re walking is really exciting.”
Safaris are usually associated with Africa (the word itself means “journey” in Swahili). But the European Safari Company is working to change that.
From the mountain slopes of central Italy to the snows of Lapland and the ancient forests of Romania, local nature tourism outfits, working in partnership with the European Safari Company, are reintroducing Europe to its wild side.
Find the right spot and have the patience, and you can see bison, wolves, wolverines, lynx and, yes, bears. These are Europe’s “Big Five”.
Nino Salkic guides visitors in Croatia’s Velebit mountains, where bears and lynx can be found. They’re shy, but Nino says: “We always see some kind of animal. Red deer, roe deer, foxes, badgers, wild boars, many, many other animals.”
Nino compares spending time in the wildlife hide to meditation. “You have to be very quiet. You need to disconnect to increase your senses and just relax. Some people are nervous and cannot wait but you have to just be patient. At the last minute when you want to go, is when all the animals appear.”
Nino knows the individual bears by sight. Harder to spot is the European lynx, nicknamed “the ghost” by the local rewilding team. They show up frequently on camera traps, but seeing them in the flesh is a rare honour. Nino remembers the first time he found himself looking at one – and it looked back.
“That was a special moment.”
The web of life
Aukje van Gerven runs the European Safari Company’s central operations and gets to spend a lot of time with wildlife. On one trip to Italy, the visitors were determined to see wolves. “There is a chance you’ll see them,” Aukje says. “But you need to be lucky. They’re not going to sit there for a photo for your Instagram.” This time however, all they saw were footprints in the snow. But on the last night the guides led them to a special spot and played the sound of a wolf’s howl, in the hope of getting a reply. “Suddenly wolves started howling all around us,” says Aukje. “Everyone’s eyes were wide. We were in total awe. What everyone said afterwards was, I really wanted to see the wolves, but just to hear them howl… it couldn’t have been better.”
Jasper Folmer runs Nature Lab, which takes people into the wild to disconnect from everyday life and “fall back in love with nature”. Nature Lab has worked with European Safari Company to bring visitors to Romania’s Carpathian mountains, where bison roam.
“Walking in that wild old forest, you feel very small as a human being,” says Jasper. “It’s overwhelming. You can read articles, see movies, but it’s different if you’re really sitting in a beautiful spot and you’re surrounded by wildlife. It’s difficult to explain what happens if you disconnect from digital devices for a couple of days – no phone, no luxuries, sleeping in a tent. After two or three days you feel more a part of this amazing web of life.”
When people return home, “they are motivated to do something” for nature, says Jasper. “And all those small steps will contribute to the bigger step we have to make.”
The experience is not just about getting to know animals, it’s about getting to know people too.
Jasper says: “The guides, they live there, it’s their backyard and they are the earth keepers of that beautiful space. They love it and they make people enthusiastic because it’s really authentic. They can tell a lot about the history, for example, the bison and how it can influence the ecology but also society and economy.”
Rina remembers waking up in a B&B at 4:30 in the morning to go and look for bears, and finding the owners already up, preparing flasks of coffee and cake to take with them. “They were so welcoming.”
Growing this kind of nature-based tourism is part of the European Safari Company’s remit, and part of what makes rewilding viable. Makers of local foods and crafts have new customers for their goods, and local accommodation and activity operators start to spring up around rewilding sites. In Portugal, the establishment of the Faia Brava site has spurred the development of businesses offering camping under the stars, vulture-watching trips and more.
Aukje van Gerven from the European Safari Company says: “We have direct relationships with rewilding workers and guides that are in the field all the time. They’re literally working on bear corridors or taking away fences, they’ve got their feet in the mud. It’s very important because they know what’s going on with wildlife in the area.”
It’s also important to have a chance to meet local people, without whose support rewilding projects couldn’t function. “It’s not a piece of fenced-off land,” says Aukje. “People live there and need to make an income. They need to be in sync with it and see the opportunity in it.”
“It’s interesting to find out what the local feeling is around the return of wildlife in that area, to talk to the shepherd who might lose his sheep and how he’s dealing with it. There’s always going to be friction that needs to be worked through. We want to give people a great holiday, but they choose us because they want to get an idea of what’s really happening.”
With so much travel restricted over the past year, the European Safari Company has invested time in training local partners on how to make the most of nature tourism, to the benefit of nature, visitors and the local economy. As tourism gets back up to speed, many Europeans are seeing the appeal of the continent they call home. Rina Quinlan says: “I’ve spent a lot of time travelling, I lived in Malaysia for a year, Australia, Kashmir… One of the most interesting things about this movement in Europe is the understanding that we have wild places at home. With Covid, that’s now ringing true for a lot of people.”
This article was featured in 5 Media. March 2020.