Responsible wildlife tourism in Romania

Once famous for its dancing bears, Romania is on a slow but steady path to changing its attitude to wildlife conservation. There’s been a sea change since Romania joined the EU in 2007: bear sanctuaries instead of bear cages; wolf tracking instead of wolf hunting. Camera traps have revealed a diversity of wildlife previously unrealised, from European wildcats, wild boar and red deer to grey wolves, Eurasian lynx and bears. But where large carnivores and humans exist in the same space, there’s always room for conflict. Read on to find out about some of the most pressing responsible tourism issues for Romania’s wildlife – and how you can help.

Responsible bear watching

Romania joined the EU in 2007, putting captive animals under the protection of more stringent environmental laws. Up until then, caged bears were commonly used to tempt customers into bars, restaurants and petrol stations. Bears have been seen as a commodity for so long that it takes convincing arguments to change attitudes.

Sometimes, it seems a glacier-slow process. The 21st century narrative seems to characterise bears as the devil himself. Newspapers obsess over rare bear attacks. Meanwhile, politicians are keen to stoke an issue close to Romanian farmers’ hearts, saying that a bear hunting ban in 2016 resulted in a too-big-for-its-boots bear population that now needs culling. (It’s worth noting that bear hunting is traditionally the premise of the Romanian elite: politicians and businessmen.) Conservationists and civilian activists say that bear population stats – usually provided by hunters – are unreliable, and that habitat loss and irresponsible waste disposal are causing increased human-bear conflict.

Simona Munteanu, from our wildlife vacation specialists Absolute Carpathian, says: “Some of these conflicts are caused by bears losing their fear of people, entering their households and creating damage to their properties. This is increasing tensions, and there are more and more people taking things into their own hands. Using poison to get rid of the bears creates problems which, of course, harm much more than just the problematic bear.”

Romania has had so many human crises in recent history – from dictatorial Communist rule to a decades-long orphanage crisis – that it’s seen as a privilege to have the funds or time to prioritise wildlife conservation. There has been a feeling that there are bigger fish to fry.

But attitudes are changing, slowly. Libearty bear sanctuary was created in 2006 by journalist Christina Lapis. With around 30 hectares of oak and hazel forests, plus pools and foothills, this is the retirement home for over 100 rescued bears that can’t be returned to the wild.
Responsible Travel Account Manager Chris Kearney spent time volunteering at Libearty bear sanctuary. He says: “I never got used to the fact I was surrounded by bears, and seeing one was a lovely hourly surprise/reminder. The food preparation is mucky work but quite fun strangely, and always done with the knowledge that you’re helping with the bears and their new life of peace. I really enjoyed learning about how the sanctuary came to be set up. It was an enormous undertaking and an inspiring labour of love and dedication by one woman, Cristina Lapis. She’s a genuine environmental hero.“
Annie Smellie, from our volunteering specialists Oyster Worldwide, says that Romania is warming towards wildlife conservation: “The attitude has certainly evolved over the years. The bear sanctuary has invested a lot in educational groups. At first, they’d get Romanian kids coming around and throwing stones into the enclosure at the bears. But through the educational side of things the younger generation in Romania are becoming a little bit more understanding of bears.”

Responsible wolf & lynx tracking

Wolves and lynx are elusive because they’ve had to be; they’ve been hunted in Romania for thousands of years. They also face very similar problems, so although they might get on like cats and dogs their fates are tied. Dangers range from pulp plantations and quarrying to road and railroad construction. Improved infrastructure is needed as Romania’s economy develops at pace, but there’s a distinct lack of environmental checks.
Poaching is one of the most pressing threats to the Eurasian lynx, which were almost exterminated in the 1930s. The legal hunting quota might be 250 in Romania, but only 30 are registered a year. It’s unclear whether the lynx really are that elusive or whether kills aren’t being reported. Roe deer poaching is an even bigger threat; they’re the most valuable food source. Still, conservationists think that lynx populations have increased to over 2,000 in 2001, despite a near-catastrophic dip after poison baits were used in a government-sponsored wolf culling campaign in the 1950s and 1960s.
There’s a need to improve basic knowledge, from improved population counts to discovering exactly what impact lynx and wolves have on livestock.
Romania lacks community-based initiatives designed to solve conflict between people and predators. That’s where the conservationist-guides you’ll meet on a wildlife vacation step in, providing education, conservation and research. They’re champions of the wolves and lynx. As Romanians see value in them – especially economic value in their conservation – they’ll see them less as threats and invest in learning how to live alongside them peacefully.
What you can do

Go on a wildlife vacation. Show the Romanian government that wildlife, kept alive, is valuable for the economy. Your money will also help guides fund research and campaigns to ensure the survival of Romanian bears, lynx and wolves. Volunteering with bears gives you the chance to care for bears that have seen abuse in their past lives. You’ll prep food, check their well-being and be treated to the capers of bears learning what life is like beyond a body-sized cage. Go on vacations that favour hides for bear watching. Although you need to be patient, these are usually the least intrusive way to see wildlife.


Habitat loss

Romania’s economy grew by 7 percent in 2017 (compare that to the UK’s 1.7 percent and the USA’s 2.3 percent). A rapid growth of cities and infrastructure followed. Forest clearing has spread since 2005 and old growth forests are disappearing. New ski resorts are popping up in areas precariously close to fragile UNESCO sites.

Wildlife corridors are the key to preserving wildlife in Romania. They need to be established and preserved. The Zarand Landscape Corridor, for instance, is celebrated for its biodiversity – but it’s also threatened by large-scale development, loss of traditional agriculture, and intensified forestry practices like logging and commercial plantations. Wildlife bridges are a solid solution, but have yet to been put into practice.

Foundation Conservation Carpathia is the largest private conservation project in Europe, designed to fight against illegal logging. It’s gradually buying forest and hunting rights to protect a wilderness in the southern Carpathians the size of Yellowstone – big enough to allow natural movement for predators with huge territorial ranges.

Pollution & litter

Recycling facilities in Romania are, quite frankly, rubbish. The newly growing economy hasn’t put responsible waste disposal at the top of its priority list, so recycling is uncommon in cities and practically non-existent in rural areas. Some accommodation takes things into their own hands, though, with self catering apartments offering refills of cleaning products and Tupperware for packed lunches.

Simona Munteanu, from our wildlife vacation specialists Absolute Carpathian, says: “Even if the rural guesthouses we work with are separating the usable or recyclable materials, there is no landfill that can process them, so our collaborators have to reuse themselves or take the recyclables to a big town that can. So for regular people that are not so committed to environmental protection, garbage separation is still a utopia, and many communities still leave the garbage in open landfills, which wildlife can easily get into.”

What you can do

Travel with a responsible tour operator that puts you up in guesthouses, not hotels that flatten forests for pools and spas. Don’t balk at paying entry fees to sanctuaries or forests. There’s very little funding for environmental projects in Romania, so your money directly contributes to their preservation. Travel with a tour operator that can get you access to the forest hides. They’re run by the forestry commission, so visits are dependent on their permission. Try to reduce your plastic use. Use reusable water bottles and drink tap water. Buy any picnics from grocery stores that don’t smother their stuff in plastic.

People & culture

Romania is one of the few European countries left where mass tourism hasn’t yet sunk its claws in. This is a great thing for you. You can choose a vacation that takes you for tea with monks at a hermitage. You’ll see villagers in the mountains who are keen to share their way of life – and give you a lift in their horse-drawn cart.

Always keep in mind that although rapidly growing, Romania still has a developing economy. Tourism helps lift people out of poverty, especially in rural communities. Wildlife vacations illustrate that there is economic worth in protecting forests and the animals in them. After all, top-of-the-food-chain predators like bears, wolves and lynx live in the same space as shepherds and farmers. You’re funding an understanding for the need to facilitate peaceful coexistence.
What you can do

Go on wildlife tours. They show that large carnivores aren’t the enemy. In fact, they’re valuable and something to be proud of – and also a source of income from tourists. Stay in guesthouses. It’s a win-win situation: you’ll be treated to fresh local produce like smoked meats and home-grown vegetables, reducing the food miles and waste associated with bigger hotels. You’ll also get to experience all-out Romanian hospitality. Use tour operators that give you more opportunity to interact with locals as well as with wildlife. You’ll understand the joys and challenges of living alongside bears, lynx and wolves, and contribute to struggling rural economies. Choose a small group or tailor made tour, as they don’t disrupt people’s ways of life. You’ll also be able to pile into guesthouses that can’t benefit from coach groups. Learn a few words of Romanian. It goes a long way, even if it’s just a hello (bunǎ).

Responsible tourism advice

Anne Smellie, from our volunteering specialists Oyster Worldwide, talked to us about her time volunteering with bears:

Bigger fish to fry

“When I was in Romania for the first time in 2010, I met a taxi driver and he asked me what I was doing in Romania. When I told him that I was volunteering in a bear sanctuary, he was absolutely baffled by the concept. He really didn’t understand why I’d be dedicating my time to animals when there was an orphanage crisis in Romania and so many people were living in poverty there.”

Go with an open mind

“The sanctuary takes more visitors and has a much better guided tour set up now, so they’re able to employ more people and it’s bringing money into the local economy. But Romania is still a very poor country. There are still huge disparities, so there’s a sense that there are bigger problems in the world. And you’d understand that; you wouldn’t judge anyone for that.”

Magic markets

“Romania still has local fruit and vegetable markets. The volunteer accommodation we have is about a two-minute walk from this huge fruit and vegetable market. It’s so fun shopping there. It’s investing in the local community and getting good food without any packaging.”
Simona Munteanu, from our wildlife vacation specialists Absolute Carpathian, says environmental policy change is a slow business in Romania:

Slow moving

“At the moment our environmental legislation regarding wildlife hunting sounds amazing. It specifies that there is no hunting of wolves, bears, lynx or wild cats, but unfortunately it isn’t backed by any actions to solve the increasing conflicts that are normal in an area still populated by a large number of animals.”

To feed or not to feed

“Some initiatives like bear hides are in danger of being shut down. Feeding places near towns like Brasov or Predeal were created because of the big problems bears were causing in these towns. They are used to keep bears interested in more remote parts of the forest rather than foraging from the garbage bins.”

Complex situation

“Of course, feeding animals is not a good thing, but the alternative in areas with increasing tourism and big concentrations of wildlife is much worse. Until viable solutions are found and implemented, I believe this is a temporary solution to our immediate problem. My tip is not to judge and apply your own standards. Try to understand the local situation and discuss ideas that can be applied to local challenges.”
Photo credits: [Page banner: Tom Bech] [Bears at Libearty: Chris Kearney] [Culture: David Stanley]