There was a lot of local skepticism when the rewilding program first got here in 2014, Matei said. But opinions changed when the ecotourism project started a few years later. “We released these bison into the wild, and the locals accepted that they basically lived on their land, and now we have to give them something back,” said Matei, explaining that every aspect of our journey, from meals to transports to the family renting, from the guest house, would be handled by villagers.
Matei left for the evening and shortly after, a middle-aged couple arrived, removing foil-wrapped ceramic dishes from their car. We sat at a long wooden table in the courtyard as they unveiled a steaming spread of grilled meats, local cheese, tomatoes in vinegar and a delicious local specialty similar to matzo ball soup. Before we started, they insisted that we take pictures of their homemade plum brandy and then waited expectantly for us to signal our pleasure, a not-too-obnoxious procedure that would be repeated at virtually every meal we had in the Romanian countryside.
Early the next morning Matei and a driver picked us up in a huge battered pickup and we drove to base camp, an idyllic hillside farm dotted with blooming apple trees and camping tents, where we were greeted by about 100 sheep and a handful of eager sheepdogs. We dropped our bags as Matei chatted with the Shepherd, a young, tough chain smoker in waders, leaning on a wooden cane. Then we went into the mountains.
The forest closed around us, huge beech and pine trees, many hundreds of years old. The Carpathians contain the largest continuous forest area on the continent, as well as the highest concentrations of brown bears, wolves and lynx and more than a third of all European plant species.
For thousands of years, the European bison, a close relative of the American bison, roamed these mountains — part of a habitat stretching from southern France to the Volga and the Caucasus. Its ancestor, the steppe bison, appears in cave paintings dating back more than 35,000 years.
As human populations expanded and forests cleared, the bison’s range declined, and by the turn of the century, hunting had nearly died out. The last wild European bison was killed by poachers in the Russian Caucasus in 1927. By then there were fewer than 50 left, all in zoos. Projects aimed at saving the bison began almost immediately in Germany and Poland, where the first reintroduction of bison took place in the Białowieża Forest in 1952. Breeding programs and reintroductions continued for the rest of the century, and by 2010 there were more than 2,000 free-roaming bison in Europe.