What Can the World Learn from Romania’s Unique Conservation Model?

Romania’s Carpathian Mountains protect over 35% of Europe’s brown bear population, the largest remaining group outside of Russia. With nearly 6,000 individuals, Romania’s bear population appears healthy, and it is not unusual to spot bears in rural areas with forest cover. There are even safari-style tours leaving from the popular tourist destination of Sighisoara to try to find the elusive bears in the natural habitat without disturbing their hunting.

However, as almost every large carnivore on Earth today, Romania’s brown bears are under significant pressure from human developments and conflicts. The large carnivores of the Carpathians, including bears, lynx, and wolves, are caught in livestock disputes with sheep farmers following traditional animal husbandry techniques. While Romania has regulations in place to protect endangered species, infrastructure projects and the demands for rapid economic development are pushing further into the Carpathian Mountains and putting these populations at risk. 

Despite these challenges, Romania continues to be one of the most biodiverse and wild countries in Europe. How has this Eastern European country managed to maintain its wild places for over 2000 years? 

1. Traditional agriculture techniques promote plant diversity.

Romania joined the European Union just thirteen years ago, in 2007. Romania’s isolation from this Union was potentially a boon for its environment as most rural farmers have yet to adopt widespread pesticide use or monoculture in their fields. In fact, driving through Transylvania can feel like a step into another era, as hand-cut piles of hay sit in hazy fields below the fortified churches built by Saxons in the 1300s. 

The secret to Romania’s incredible biodiversity lies in that hay. By avoiding pesticides and cutting hay late in the season – once it has already germinated – farmers seed an incredible diversity of flora in their fields. Not only is this variety of plants more enriching for the Earth – and the animals that eat them – but they also make for a stunning tapestry of wildflowers in late summer, a sight rarely to be seen anywhere else in Europe. 

These agricultural methods, which use few chemicals and little fencing for livestock, mean that wildlife continues to have wide spaces to roam free. Brown bears need up to 300 square kilometers to survive, so Romania’s current system is vital to protecting their forest habitat. Today, organizations like ADEPT are working to maintain this style of farming by empowering small-holder farms through unique financing models that incentivize them to maintain biodiversity on their fields.

2. Public-private partnerships protect the most critical areas.

In Transylvania’s rural areas, the low-impact agricultural systems, characterized by wildflower meadows and forested hilltops, provide a buffer zone for more remote parts of the Carpathian Mountains. Deep within these mountains, where there are few human settlements, thick native pine forests still provide critical habitats for Europe’s most iconic wildlife. 

And while some areas of the Carpathian wilderness are protected by national parks, the Romanian government has recently weakened its hold on these areas, allowing private actors to purchase land for timber or agriculture. Luckily, several private organizations and nonprofits have stepped in to buy parts of this land and create a reserve that protects the area from further logging. The Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) has been purchasing land back from developers since 2009 with the goal of creating a 100,000-hectare permanent reserve that complements the national parks created by the Romanian government.

3. Romanians learn to love nature from a young age. 

It is not unusual for people from Romania’s big cities, like Bucharest and Brasov, to head into Transylvania for a weekend of camping in the surrounding forests and alpine meadows. Traditional leisure activities place a heavy emphasis on the outdoors, so many families understand the importance of protecting the environment so that others can enjoy it on walks, hikes, and bike rides across the countryside. 

That being said, environmental education is not widespread, so many public areas suffer from overuse, littering, and forest fires from illegal campfires. The Tarnava Mare region, which makes up a large part of Transylvania, is working to create areas for people to enjoy without destroying the native wildlife. A network of mountain biking trails, as well as picnic sites and campsites in popular forest sites, make it possible for people to explore natural areas within safe limits. 

Many Romanians feel extremely connected to the quiet, natural way of living that continues to define the Transylvanian countryside and will work hard to protect it as a way of preserving a central part of the country’s culture. This effort has a knock-on effect on the environment by continuing to promote biodiversity near and within the Carpathian Mountains. 

The system of buffer zones, low-impact agriculture, and public-private partnerships has enabled Romania to remain one of the most biodiverse, and wild, countries in Europe, protecting more than one-third of the region’s bears. While the country will inevitably undergo significant changes over the coming decade, its conservation efforts will hopefully act as a model for how to promote both biodiversity and the flourishing of local livelihoods. 

Want to see Romania’s beautiful wildlife for yourself? See available tours here.

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