In this series, Globe-Trotter talks to travel lovers about defining journeys. Here, philanthropist Paul Lister, founder of The European Nature Trust and custodian of the Alladale Estate in the Scottish Highlands, explains how a trip to Romania's Făgăraș Mountains in 1996 inspired him to dedicate his life to conservation.
The experience that really inspired me towards nature, and to found The European Nature Trust, is a visit to Romania in the mid 1990s. The Crofting Commission had invited a man called Christoph Promberger – who was living in Romania doing a project for the Munich Wildlife Society – to come and talk at an event in Inverness. They were curious to learn about how it was possible for 2,000 wolves, 6,000 bears and 2,000 Lynx to live together with 10 million sheep in Romania.
In those post-communism days, Christoph was working with the Munich Wildlife Society and he had heard about Romania being referred to as ‘the Eden of Europe’, so he decided to go there to investigate what was going on. He established the Carpathian Large Carnivore Initiative, a research project to better understand how shepherds and rural communities lived alongside large predator numbers, and how it all worked. Roy Dennis of the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation was at the event, and he knew of my interest in the idea of rewilding and reintroducing wolves to Scotland, so straight afterwards he called me and said: ‘You have to meet this guy.’
Two weeks after Roy called me, I took a flight to Bucharest. Christoph picked me up from the airport, and we headed north, past the city of Ploiesti and towards the Carpathian Mountains. The first hour of the drive was over very flat plains that are industrialised farmland, then we hit the foothills and started to drive upwards along mountain roads.
We passed through the town of Sinaia, which is on the edge of the Bucegi Natural Park. There's a Royal Palace in Sinaia – the Neo-Renaissance Peles Castle – and, together with the neighbouring town of Predeal, they are the two eminent ski resorts in Romania. On our way through Sinaia we drove past a guy with a pet bear on a lead. He was just walking along the street with it, like he was walking a dog. And I remember thinking: ‘This is completely nuts!’
We carried on over the Pârâul Reche ridge, and then through a place called Zarnesti where there’s an old munitions factory. I remember Christoph pointing it out to me and telling me it was a Romanian missile factory that had just been closed. Today, this little village of Zarnesti has actually become one of the ecotourism destinations of Romania.
We then drove up this valley and arrived at a tiny cabin, which is where Christoph did his fieldwork. It was in a place called Plaiul Foii, behind the Piatra Craiului ridge, which is a famous limestone ridge in the Făgăraș Mountains.
We stayed at the cabin, which was very small so I slept on the floor on a mattress. I also met two women that Christoph had employed – one was a bear expert called Annette Mertens and the other was a lynx expert called Barbara Fuerpass. So there I was with a wolf man, a bear woman and a lynx lady. Christoph actually ended up marrying Barbara, the lynx lady, and together they founded the Foundation Conservation Carpathia.
Christoph had two wolves that he had rescued from a fur farm, and we would take them out on walks in the mornings. It was January, so the snow was deep and powdery, and I remember going out with them one day and I was struggling and straining, pulling this wolf along on a chain. The next thing I knew these two bear cubs, quite big, came bounding towards us across the snow. They were the pets of a neighbour from just further along in the valley. It was completely bizarre and unreal, it felt like something out of a crazy film. I thought: ‘I've got a wolf on a lead and two bears charging at me. What’s next?’
I got completely enchanted with the place and fell in love with it. One day, Christoph took me on a snow mobile and we went deep, deep into the mountains. We climbed very high to a viewpoint, and it was just miles and miles and miles of forest – swathes of old growth forest, for as far as the eye could see. And when I saw that living landscape – an ecosystem that had not been industrialised – that was so exciting for me, because I could see what was missing in Scotland. And I thought: ‘My God, this is a place I want to get involved with.’
I continued to support Christoph’s work, making small grants out of my personal money to the Munich Wildlife Society. Then, in 2001, I formerly set up The European Nature Trust (TENT), which supports wildlife and conservation projects across Europe. In 2003, I purchased the Alladale Estate in the Scottish Highlands where I have created a wilderness reserve, and a rewilding programme to restore the natural ecosystem of the land.
I’ve visited the Făgăraș Mountains in Romania many times since that crazy first trip in 1996, but it never fails to inspire me and remind me why these natural ecosystems are so precious and important to protect.
Paul Lister is the founder of The European Nature Trust, a trustee of Foundation Conservation Carpathia and the owner of Alladale Wilderness Reserve; theeuropeannaturetrust.com
Photography courtesy of Paul Lister, unless otherwise stated