Howling at the Moon

Learning to Live With Wolves in the Romanian Foothills

Some 2,000 years ago, the barbarous Carpathian rulers known as the Dacians charged into battle against the invading Roman forces behind wolf-head banners. They were crushed and ultimately assimilated by the Romans. From this union of "wolf people" and the great Italian civilization under the sign of the she-wolf was born the Romanians.

Romania has 3,500 wolves, and they"re becoming a tourist attraction as well.© Photos to Go

Ever since, the wolf, or "lup" as the locals know it, has played an integral part in the Romanian culture and psyche. Today the Carpathian wilderness is home to more than a third of Europe’s large carnivore population, or 3,500 wolves, which is nearly as many as found in the entire U.S. The wolf is a major player in Romanian folklore, and retains a supernatural reputation. "Speak of the wolf and his tail appears" warns the old Romanian proverb.

Christoph Promberger of the Carpathian Large Carnivore Project (CLCP), who has been researching the large carnivores of the southern Carpathian Mountains for the past 10 years, contends that his greatest finding is how easily carnivores can co-exist with people.

In Romania, it’s not completely out of the ordinary to spot a bear leaning head first into a neighborhood dumpster. After all, an estimated 5,500 bears roam the Romanian territory, an area roughly equivalent in size to the state of Michigan.

At the suburban apartment complex of Racadau, some bears have learned how wasteful humans can be and regularly descend from the hills to feed from garbage bins. Their scavenging has been so widespread that crowds gather in the street to await their arrival.

"People still think that carnivores, and especially wolves, can’t live in proximity to humans," says Promberger. "But just look at Yellowstone Park. People are getting scared that wolves are getting too close."

Though wolves have a sinister and near-mystical reputation, CLCP worked in conjunction with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to capture some extraordinary footage of wolves roaming unnoticed through rush-hour traffic on their way back from the local zoo, where they regularly venture for scraps of meat. The team was startled by the disinterested commuters, who treat these fierce hunters like common street dogs. "The wolf is a very adaptable species and has shown its ability to cope with high human densities," says Luigi Boitani, a zoology professor at the University of Rome who has written a conservation plan for European wolves. "They know how to live among humans. It is up to us to show the same kind of adaptability and tolerance."

Romania today is still a fairytale land, with fabulous old architecture, horse-drawn carts in the roadways, peasants wielding huge sickles and hospitality like the olden days. Shepherding is still a large part of the economy. As in centuries past, shepherds still routinely herd their flock towards higher altitudes and greener pastures. And the wolves" taste for sheep is the same as it always has been. Now and then, just like in the storybooks, a wolf slips in and steals one.

Shepherd Gheorghe Corca has spent 30 years leading his flock into wolf territory, and has faced these large carnivores many times. Experience has made him more afraid of the wolf than the larger but more easily avoided bear. "The bear is heavy and you hear him step," explains Corca. "But the wolf is a silent creature."

In 1997, CLCP started the country’s first ecotourism program and took its first step towards proving that humans can live and prosper around large carnivores.

Zarnesti, 100 miles north of the capital city of Bucharest, sits right in the backyard of Dracula’s Castle. The old border town, whose Transylvanian-style homes stand like little gothic fortresses, dates back to the brutal Middle Ages, the era of Dracula model Vlad Tepes (known as "The Impaler" for his treatment of Ottoman Turkish prisoners).

Zarnesti is a multi-cultural community, much as it was depicted in Bram Stoker’s novel, with Romanian, German and Hungarian names side by side on the tombstones in the town cemetery. And what Romanian town would be without its colorful gypsy settlement? Zarnesti has four.

But while wolves and bears have thrived under the nation’s new protective environmental laws, the townspeople of Zarnesti have continued to struggle. Unemployment is still the town’s number one problem. The ecotourism program has done its share but only 150 people of the town’s 27,000 are directly affected.

Hikers can be seen disembarking at the train station and marching in a line straight through town to the trails. The next day, they return leaving behind just their footprints. "So we had this idea to build a Large Carnivore Center," says Promberger. "We are building it on the other side of town so that instead of simply flooding the environmentally sensitive areas, people would spend their nights in town, and visit restaurants and shops."

The center opens in 2005, covering 135 acres of protected Transylvanian land, with a lecture hall, classrooms and spacious outdoor enclosures for bears, lynx and the wolves "Crai" and "Poiana," both rescued from a nearby fur factory. There will also be exhibition rooms dedicated to the large carnivores and their habitat.

Carnivores are becoming central to Romania’s tourism industry. Promberger says, "When I first came here there were a lot of people who felt we were living in the Middle Ages because we had so many wolves running around. They thought we had to "solve" this problem in order to join the West. Now this has changed. People see the wolves and bears as a heritage that Western countries have lost."