Along the southern end of Romania's arcing Carpathian Mountains, some of the continent's largest wilderness landscapes are the perfect setting for a true European safari. Rugged mountain chains, mixed forest and beautiful rivers provide a magnificent playground for intrepid travellers. Now a rewilding stronghold, this area has seen over 100 bison returned to the wild – free to roam the Tarcu Mountains.
Photography credits: Sandra Bartocha and Staffan Widstrand
Before the bison reintroduction initiative developed by WWF and Rewilding Europe, there was no tourism at all in this area. In 2016, when there already was a small herd of free bison roaming around the Tarcu Mountain, the idea of creating a local ecotourism network to be able to give back to the local people, who “hosted” the rewilding of the bison, started to develop.
We had the opportunity to talk to Matei Myculescu, a local guide and a ranger for WWF Romania. He studied economics but later decided to change to something more nature related, and the bison reintroduction project was the best opportunity. Matei grew up in the village and spent most of the summer holidays with his grandmother around the area of Bison Hillock.
Because there was no tourism at all in the area, everything moved slowly, but step by step they brought in experienced people who helped to create an attractive ecotourism product, based on bison tracking, but also on local food and local accommodation. Little by little, they managed to involve local people in the transportation of the guests, in the preparation of the food-chefs (using locally sourced food as much as possible).
“We helped a family create a local guesthouse and we renovated an old hut to use it as a shelter and basecamp - and one more is in the process of renovation -, and also a landscape observatory, just to create an impact on the community, as big as possible”.
For the success of the bison reintroduction project, and for the wellbeing of the entire wildlife and ecosystem of the area, we need to educate the locals, to keep them on our side and to show them that they can benefit from protecting the bison and nature in general - through ecotourism. And our guests are helping us directly to achieve this goal.
Having a nature oriented profession gives Matei the opportunity to help the community of this area develop in the right way, something he enjoys about the profession.
“I like it because I have the possibility the help our community to develop the right way. In nature, I enjoy the fact that every walk in nature is different, you don’t know what to expect and all the time there are new things to learn. Just when you think you know a lot, you realise there are so many more things you don’t know about nature”.
For him, this is an area where you can still get a taste of European wilderness, and also experience an area where people are still having to compromise and share the same habitat/land with wildlife.
From his point of view, sustainable nature-based tourism has a deeper natural conservation side than normal tourism, being more ethical and playing a direct role in preserving nature.
It will take a long time to see positive impact in nature, but what Matei can already see are some positive impacts on the actions of some of the locals towards nature -since the start of the project and of the ecotourism experiences in this area. But we still have a lot of work to do.
“The development of the European Safari Company platform helped us to promote our ecotourism product to the people we need as our guests, those who understand what we are doing and why their presence is so important. Ecotourism is the best tool to enjoy nature and be part of nature conservation efforts in the same time”.
Matei was born in Armeniș and grew up around the Bison Hillock area in Romania. Matei’s guiding career started when he began working for the Bison Reintroduction Project initiated by WWF Romania and Rewilding Europe in 2014, when the first group of bison were brought into this area to give them the chance to roam free again.
The hope was to develop a network of community beneficial tourism businesses to support conservation and allow a new economic stream into the area.
As the vice-president of a local association AMZA, which was created to help people develop through eco-tourism, Matei has taken on a multifaceted role in developing tourism experiences around the free-roaming bison.
As part of the community development plan, Matei assisted in promoting the local food and traditions with the aim to increase the living standards in the village through small enterprise support and development, centred around bison conservation and reintroduction.
With a firm stance and belief that the community plays a vital role in the success of the bison reintroduction, Matei is constantly looking for new ways to assist the community, all while maintaining his critical role as a bison ranger and hosting guest experiences.
'It's great to be part of such a great and ambitious project as the bison reintroduction and also to be able to help your community to grow in the right direction with conservation.'
Matei Adryan Miculescu
Bison ranger & guide