Local people and bison

July 11, 2013

“A little to the left,” says Adrian. “No, stop!” screams the other Adrian. Petru, the Major of the county of Armensis, steps on the brake — just in time!

A deep sigh of relief from all of us, a split second later and we would have ended up in a ditch, with no chance to get out. The melting snow in combination with the heavy rainfall had turned, what once was a road, into a narrow canyon.

Petru’s hands are sweating. What would he say to his wife if he had driven their new Dacia into a canyon? Both Adrians, working for the local Rewilding Europe team, are guiding the Major out of this uncomfortable situation.

From the canyon Adrian, watching right, while the other Adrian is watching left, stamping on the ground in front of the wheels so they do not slide deeper into the canyon. It is a real millimetres work; one mistake and we have a long walk ahead of us, as the nearest house is far away. Or we might even have to spend the night sleeping in the woods, unplanned and unprepared.

Earlier that day, we had been searching with the other team members Anca, Alexandru, Cosmina and Marius, for a suitable site to build an enclosure for the bison in the Southern Carpathians. The very large ‘rewilding’ enclosure will give time for the animals, born in captivity or brought from elsewhere, to adapt to a fully independent life in the wild.

As a team, we are preparing for the re-introduction of the European bison to the Southern Carpathians. By 18th—19th century the last bison had disappeared from the area. In an earlier visit at the end of the winter, we identified a very suitable reintroduction site, a Natura 2000 area near the Tarcu Mountains. The habitat is suitable for the bison also in winter conditions. It is adjoining large forests interspersed with meadows, big enough to sustain a viable population of more than a thousand animals.

Now it is time to work out the details. Planning a reintroduction in the office is one thing, implementing it in the field is a totally different story. The area is remote and the scenery is magnificent. It offers good tourist potential. The region has a very high unemployment rate and new economic incentives are welcome. The bison could be just the icon species that the area has been waiting for.

The local team had taken much effort to talk to many local people, to understand their needs, to exchange ideas and to search for cooperation and support. That had lead to finding a good re-introduction site with support from the local people and authorities. The local rewilding team is very young, but has already shown a very practical approach in getting things done and understand the key to success in nature conservation — do not talk about local people, but WITH local people!

When the local team searched for a suitable site for the bison and spread the word, several local people jumped at the idea. It is in people’s nature not to be fond of ideas to change the security of the known for something that is unknown. New approaches are therefore generally perceived with scepticism and surely not with open arms.

In Southern Carpathians there are clear signs of land abandonment, but still many people live in the area, having small agricultural fields, working in the forest, hunting, poaching, grazing their sheep, etc. Ideas that affect their ‘backyard’ are therefore generally not so well accepted by local people in the countryside, as compared to the city people, whose backyard is not affected and who have no sentiment to the land.

Fortunately, in almost every region there are people with pioneer ideas and open to new opportunities. These are the ‘early adapters’ that show that new ways can bring new opportunities. Who else is better at convincing the other local people, too? Showing people that rewilding works and involving them in the process is much more efficient than just telling the story.

Tell me and I’ll forget.
Show me and I might remember.
Involve me and I’ll understand.

After the long day in the field, visits to many sites and talks with many locals, we went to the town hall with good news for Petru — we found a possible site.

But Petru was convinced he could offer a better alternative. He immediately cancelled a few appointments, dropped of his family and then took us back up the forest road to Tarcu Mountains. We had to drive fast as it was getting dark soon. We drove for 1,5 hours up the same forest road as earlier today, the road itself being badly damaged by logging operations. We were ‘well shaken’ by the time we arrived…

But it was worth it — Petru was right. This site meets all the criteria for the rewilding enclosure. The bison can be released directly to the wild from the enclosure. It is surrounded by thousands of hectares of suitable habitat. This was the local support we had been looking for and so crucial for the success of our reintroduction efforts.

It was pitch dark when we continued home from our ‘canyon’ adventure, but we were all very happy. The Dacia was still in one piece, we saved ourselves a very long walk in the dark AND we found the best site to start the bison reintroduction. It became very clear to us that Petru was one of these ‘early adapters’. The kind of people we need for our reintroduction initiative. Local people and local representatives of the local authorities, who understand the Rewilding Europe concept and what bringing back the bison can, in turn, bring to the local community. We found not only the right site, but also a true ambassador for the bison.

Within the bison initiative we want to not only involve as many local people as possible; we also want them to see that the bison can create jobs for them. Without the local support the long-term survival of the bison is not guaranteed. When the local community profits from the presence of the bison, they are also motivated to protect the bison and its habitat. And under the umbrella of the bison many other species will profit. Local people will be hired to become bison rangers with anti-poaching tasks, as poaching is still a big problem in the area. The best anti-poaching mechanism is still social control that comes from the community itself. They guard ‘their goose with the golden eggs’. Creating opportunities and extra jobs means giving an economic dimension to the bison re-introduction — an essential key to the successful return of ‘the king of the forest’.

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