When I heard that Rhodope Mountains have become the seventh Rewilding Europe’s area, the very first thought that crossed my mind was “Rhodopes cannot go any wilder”. I have always considered Rhodope Mountains as wildlife heaven due to the relatively small, even negligible human disturbance. Few months later as a Rewilding Europe volunteer, I set out on a journey to find out what can make the Rhodopes wilder than the wild place I last visited before.
For that purpose, I planned to spend a week in the area. Half of that time I spent exploring the area, hiking and camping with friends and the rest working with the Rewilding Rhodopes team in small village called Nanovitsa located in Eastern part of the Rhodopes. The village now acts as headquarter for our work. What I found there was a relatively small but very active rewilding team supporting an ambitious initiative.
Once you get to the Eastern Rhodopes region, it is only a matter of time (or hours to be more precise) to see one of the dozen raptor species including three species of vultures and six species of eagles. I am not a very passionate bird-watcher but I cannot help getting overexcited every time I sight the majestic griffon vulture. What I found very interesting is that local people and communities recognize wildlife tourists and usually proudly ask if you are in the area to see the vultures. The locals often refer to them as “their” vultures and seem quite attached to them. Several wildlife experts, most of whom are now working for Rewilding Europe, have spent quality time in the past educating the people in the area about the benefits of nature conservation and wildlife tourism. They are still closely cooperating and promoting this new economic model and for me it was clear that their efforts are creating tangible results for the local community.
One of the reasons why I prefer to visit Student Kladenets Reserve compared to other protected areas is a unique chance to get closer to wild animals in a pristine landscape. Fallow deer, for instance, can be seen everywhere in the reserve. The reserve boasts with some 1 500 animals living in the wild, making it one of the largest concentrations of wildlife; not only in Bulgaria but in Europe as well. Unfortunately, there are hardly any other areas in the Bulgaria where you can be surrounded by wild animals and enjoy wildlife watching. This is largely due to the problem of excessive hunting and poaching. I hope that due to the efforts of Rewilding Europe and Rhodope Mountains rewilding team this glimpse picture is about to change. Why is that? The rewilding team set an ambitious goal to restore the fallow deer population in the whole area of Eastern Rhodopes. A release of hundred fallow deer into the wild in the priority rewilding site of Chernoochene already took place. This actually marked the beginning of the Rewilding Europe’s activities and initiatives in the area. Rewilding Rhodopes tries to work with local hunting associations to increase wildlife numbers and develop wildlife watching as a new income source.
Probably the most exciting part of my trip was the sight of the playful and joyful young Tarpan horses. This spring, the herd of semi-wild Tarpans in the Eastern Rhodopes increased by six foals. According to Hristo, who is the rewilding officer from Rhodope Mountains rewilding team, even more are to be born by the beginning of the summer. It is important to mention that the rewilding efforts are not new to the area. Rewilding Rhodopes is a successor of another initiative, called New Thracian Gold. Among its main achievements until 2015, the most significant are the reintroductions of the Tarpan horses that I had the chance to see and the reintroduction of European bison to Studen Kladenets Reserve.
Back in the days when I was a student, I had to go all the way to Yellowstone National Park in order to see bison. Never have I imagined that less than one decade later I will be able to see these majestic creatures roaming around the Rhodopes. For their size, European bison are agile, quick and capable of speed exceeding 60 km/h. The rewilding team keeping an eye on them, kindly reminded me about those facts. Watching these animals in the mountain was a surreal experience for me.
Few days later and quite by chance I got a hold of a book about the Rhodopes caves that helped me build a more vivid picture of the historic role of bison in the Rhodopes area. It turned out that during prehistoric times the bison were part of the wildlife scenery. Cave drawings in the Rhodope Mountains serve as a proof that bison once inhabited this area. Such drawings exist and can be seen in Topchika cave, near Dobrostan village.