Rewilding Efforts and Tourism in the Rhodope Mountains

We talked with Hristo Hristov, a rewilding officer from the Rewilding Rhodope team, about the efforts in this area and what tourism means for the conservation of the region. He has worked for more than thirty years in nature conservation and sustainable development in the Eastern Rhodopes.

Photography credits: Staffan Widstrand and Rewilding Rhodopes

The Eastern Rhodopes are mountains in the Southeast part of the Balkan Peninsula, bordering Southeast Bulgaria and Northeast Greece.

The location of the area on the border between the Mediterranean and Continental Europe, its geology, and its climate determinate the rich and unique biodiversity of the Eastern Rhodopes.

The mosaic landscape of the area is a typical aspect of this area – open grasslands, alternating with shrubs and forests. This variety of habitats supports the diversity of flora and fauna. 

“In the past, the mountain was densely populated, but nowadays big parts of the area are sparsely populated or partially abandoned. As a result,  the open areas slowly become more and more overgrown - the forest and bushes naturally encroach to the open grasslands and all species attracted to such terrains might disappear. But the process of land abandonment is also an opportunity for wildlife to come back and for nature to manage itself.”

Rewilding efforts in the Rhodopes are focused on the support of natural processes. For instance, to support natural grazing we work on the restoration of wild herbivores like fallow deer, red deer, wild horses, and bison. 

The bison project started in 2013 in collaboration with the National Hunting Union, in Studen Kladenets hunting reserve.

The goal of the project was to turn back this keystone species in the Rhodopes and to preserve the outstanding wild nature and its ecosystems in one of the most abundant biodiversity hotspots in Europe. 

In 2019, after more than five years behind a fence, the bison were released in nature, and the first bison calf since centuries, was born in the wild south of the Danube River. This year, the second wild rhodopean bison calf was born.

“It was very exciting to observe how,  after their release,  the animals reoccupied their ecological niche. The bison started to made seasonal migrations, and slowly explored the very big area. Now, they are in the highest and wildest part of the area, but in autumn we expect that they will return near the area where they were released. Our next goal is to strengthen existing bison population with additional individuals, and I hope that soon more bison will roam free in the Rhodopes”.

The number of animals is still very low (only eight) and it is hard to make general conclusions on their impact in nature. In the Rhodopes the diet of bison includes mainly leaves, branches, and bark, and their impact on some bushes and trees is visible. However,  after release, they occupied a big area and their impact in nature is not so significant yet. 

“We observed noticeable changes and impacts in the fenced area, where they were before the release. The bison managed to open the forest and to create small glades with more grass. Thus, the area became more attractive for fallow deer and hares. Also, many bird species were attracted – for example, at the beginning of the project in the area of the bison fence there were no rollers. Two years later one pair occupied the area.”

“Nature is incredible - every day in nature brings new discovery and knowledge. I want people to learn everything  – nature, wildlife, archeological sites, the mixture of different religions, cultures, and traditions. And to expect the unexpected”

Tourism can also be important for the conservation of nature and wildlife. Tourism brings income for local people. In some places, which are popular as ecotourism destinations, it is a significant part of the local economic – for example in the area of Madzharovo, where many people come because of the vultures, and preserved wildlife and natural processes. 

Tourism contributes to increasing local support and engagement for nature conservation - not only for people that are directly involved in tourism but also to others. Locals are proud that tourists all over the world come to see nature and wildlife in their region. This makes them understand how important it is to preserve nature around them. Support and engagement of local communities are very important for the success and sustainability of nature conservation activities. It is very important to find a balance between tourism and nature.