There was a lot of local skepticism when the rewilding program first came here in 2014, Matei said. But opinion shifted once the ecotourism project began a few years later. “We released these bison into the wild, and the locals accepted them living on their land basically, and now we have to give them something back,” Matei said, explaining that every aspect of our trip, from meals to transports to the family renting out the guesthouse, would be handled by villagers.
Matei left for the evening, and soon after, a middle-aged couple arrived, pulling 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 meat, local cheese, tomatoes in vinegar and a delicious local specialty similar to matzo ball soup. Before we started, they insisted we take shots of their homemade plum brandy and then waited expectantly for us to signal our enjoyment, a not-unpleasant 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 up to the base camp, an idyllic hillside farmstead scattered with blossoming apple trees and camping tents, where we were greeted by about 100 sheep and a handful of enthusiastic sheepdogs. We dropped our bags while Matei chatted with the shepherd, a youngish, tough-looking chain-smoker in waders leaning on a wooden walking stick. Then we headed into the mountains.
The forest closed in around us, huge beech trees and pines, many of them hundreds of years old. The Carpathians encompass the largest area of unbroken forest on the continent, as well as the highest concentrations of brown bears, wolves and lynxes 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 that extended from southern France to the Volga River and the Caucasus. Its ancestor, the steppe bison, appears in cave paintings dating back more than 35,000 years.
As human populations expanded and cut down forests, the bison’s range decreased, and by the turn of the century it had been hunted to near extinction. The last wild European bison was killed by poachers in the Russian Caucasus in 1927. By then, fewer than 50 remained, all held in zoos. Projects aimed at saving the bison began almost immediately in Germany and Poland, where the first bison reintroduction took place in the Białowieża Forest in 1952. Breeding programs and reintroductions continued through the rest of the century, and by 2010, there were more than 2,000 free-roaming bison in Europe.