Based in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria, intern Philip Marinov has relished his experience evaluating Rewilding Europe’s rewilding scale.
This spring, like most second-year Master’s students at Wageningen University (in the Netherlands), I found myself seeking an internship. I wanted a chance to experience first-hand the issues that conservationists meet every day in the field, and I wanted to stay in Europe. My home continent, which I feel is underappreciated by many of its residents, has always fascinated me.
I had already been looking for an internship for several weeks when, just days before the deadline, I received an offer from Rewilding Europe by e-mail. They were looking for a Wageningen University student studying a conservation-related Master’s degree. They were also looking for someone who could speak Bulgarian. Luckily, the second requirement filtered out most of my competition.
I had heard of Rewilding Europe before and liked their ambitious yet down-to-earth approach to conservation. It was one of those timely opportunities that I immediately knew I had to grasp. And so, a few weeks later, I found myself travelling home to Bulgaria, and then on to the city of Kardzhali in the southeast of the country.
The purpose of my internship has been to test Rewilding Europe’s rewilding scale. Based in the Rhodope Mountains rewilding area, I have worked with the Rewilding Rhodopes team to evaluate and refine this tool for measuring rewilding progress. The ecosystem characteristics measured as part of the scale include the condition of various habitat types and the populations of wildlife that occupy them along the food chain – herbivores, carnivores and scavengers. Eventually this scale will be applied on a regular basis to all Rewilding Europe sites.
Understanding diverse ecosystems requires knowledge of a multitude of interrelated factors. Together these determine what a landscape looks like, and how well it can sustain its inhabitants. Gaining this knowledge can be a complex and lengthy task.
Yet the practice of practical rewilding often requires regular evaluation, with a need to adapt the management of sites to real-time situations on the ground. This frequently means that some data now is preferable to every piece of data later. In addition, the areas where Rewilding Europe operates – from Scandinavia in the north to the Mediterranean in the south – span a wide range of climates and habitats, with each site presenting unique opportunities and challenges. In this context, a practicable rewilding scale must balance comprehensiveness, applicability, and the effort and time necessary to implement it.
My work is as diverse as the challenges involved. In the field I have carried out a camera trap study looking at how well herbivores are doing in the Studen Kladenetz pilot site. It involves a lot of walking, occasionally running (to shelter, from thunderstorms) and every now and then crawling (under thorny bushes), which is a refreshing change from desk research. Best of all, I get to explore a wild corner of my own country which I have never visited before. It is amazing how different the nature here looks and feels compared to the surroundings of my home town, considering the relatively small distance between them. This is true right across Europe, and shows the huge potential of nature-based tourism on our continent.
While setting up and recovering cameras, I enjoy frequent encounters with my study subjects. These offer insights into behavioural traits that you can’t really glean from documentaries or books. Fallow deer, for instance, are surprisingly easy to approach unnoticed, despite the threat of wolves in the area, and they really do freeze for a couple of seconds once they spot you (that “deer in the headlights” expression makes way more sense now). Camera trapping also lets you appreciate just how secretive most wildlife is – despite spending several weeks in the area so far, I have encountered only a fraction of the species that the cameras have recorded. Often, when reviewing the photos in the field, I find myself sitting at the exact spot where only an hour ago a fox, a boar or a wild cat was walking, resting or even (on one unfortunate occasion) relieving itself.
Between trips to the area, while waiting for animals to pose for photos, I also do research and work with geographic information systems (GIS) to quantify some of the habitat indicators of the rewilding scale. With little experience of using GIS, I have learned a lot from this widely applicable and important conservation tool. I also fit the data from the camera trapping to a model in order to estimate the number of animals, updating it as I retrieve each set of camera traps. Similar tasks were routinely practiced during my Master’s degree at Wageningen University, and it has been really rewarding to be able to apply what I have learned to real data and towards a real objective.
With summer coming to an end, I will soon collect my last set of camera traps and finalise the results. In the last few months I have experienced a small cross-section of the challenges that face Rewilding Europe’s rewilding officers, and also the great appeal of this kind of work. I have been lucky to meet a great team in Bulgaria, and to get to know a beautiful, wild place at the edge of Europe. It has made the vision of a wilder future for the Old World seem within reach.