From June till October I have been doing my
internship at the ‘Bison Hillock’ project in the south-western part of Romania.
This internship was a part of my Master study Biology at the Wageningen University
in The Netherlands, where one my teachers got me in contact with Rewilding
Europe. They suggested to me to check out their rewilding project in the
Southern Carpathians and connected me to the WWF Romania team that is working
there. Soon it became clear that this project could really use an intern
student, as there were special events about to happen, so I went for it!

In the beginning of June 2016 I arrived in a
small and rural Romanian village called Fenes. Here, most people work on their
lands in the surrounding hills, and with only one primary school, a few shops
and a small monastery, many people spend their free time by sitting outside in
front of their houses, watching as the day goes by. At first sight, it seems
like nothing special is happing there, but there is! Fenes is home to the
research station of the WWF Romania’s team members of the Bison Hillock project.
The project is aimed to bring back the European bison (Bison bonasus) to the Romanian wilderness. As part of a bigger
plan, these bison will be free to roam the largest European mountain range and
hopefully connect with other reintroduced bison herds from several Eastern
European countries to restore a viable and healthy bison population in Europe.

The rewilding takes place in stages, where
bison are released into an enclosure with a so-called ‘acclimatization zone’
and ‘rewilding zone’, before being released into the wild. Just a few days
after my arrival, the first 20 bison that were brought to this enclosure over
the last years, were set free. This was great news and a big step forward in
the project! Shortly afterwards a new group of 10 bison arrived from Belgium
and Germany to rewild during the following months. Television crews from CNN,
Belgium and Romania joined this event, as did the involved partners and locals.
It was great to see that many people are interested and involved in this
project!

With the first group of bison enjoying their
freedom I was able to start my research. Because little is known about the
bison behaviour in the wild, it was important to find out which places and
habitats these bison preferred, described in terms of their habitat use. Would
they move to the higher elevated mountainous forests and grasslands? Or maybe
stick around the local farms and pastures? Collected data would not only provide
information that can be used for adaptive management for example to prevent
future human-bison conflicts, but also for the search of alternative
reintroduction sites along the Carpathians to support the establishment of a healthy
bison population. So, I used the available methods to collect data on where the
bison were hanging around. I analysed GPS data from a collared bison, videos
from camera traps in the study area, and coordinates from indirect bison
observations by performing transects and other hikes. These indirect
observations included the tracks and faeces of the bison, but also the damage
to the bark of trees, as the bison like to nibble on the bark of young beech (Fagus sylvatica) and fir (Abies alba) saplings.

Every time I went up into the mountains to do
my fieldwork research I felt privileged to be working in such a beautiful and
wild place. Each week I hiked several tens of kilometres through the area to
cover as much ground as possible to track the wild bison and conduct my research.
Of course the bison are not the only wildlife that can be found there, as the
camera traps have captured species of deer, wild boar, wolf, brown bear, and
even the illusive Eurasian lynx! One time I even had a close encounter with a
large mammal, hiding just 20 meters away in a dense beech-seedling patch.
Although I couldn’t see what was running away from me, I found very fresh bear
scats just a hundred meters away! But besides the fact that this was quite
exciting it was actually very useful, as I was able to collect samples for another
study on genetic diversity on the brown bear in the Southern Carpathians!

After collecting all my data I analysed it with
statistical and GIS-software and I found several ‘hotspots’ where
bison-activity was very high! Interestingly, some bison that were found often
in these hotspots preferred pasture habitats and spend more than 70% of their
time in this habitat type. Remarkably, these findings differ from studies on
habitat use of the free bison in Poland, where they spent most of their time in
forest habitats. But not all the bison were found in pastures, as many tracks
were found in other (open) forest areas, indicating that another part of the
group is expanding the home range and exploring the area. This is promising
news and hopefully the bison will keep exploring to find their way across the
mountains in the next years!

Besides doing research on the bison, the Bison
Hillock project is also focussing on other aspects like involvement and
development of local enterprises, raising awareness for nature conservation,
and the establishment of nature-friendly tourism. During my time in Romania
I’ve helped to set up a weekly movie-night for the local youth, where we mixed
educative nature related documentaries with Disney movies to keep the kids involved
and familiar with the project. Also the visitor centre in the neighbouring
Armeniș village
has been opened with state of the art installations where science is displayed
to anyone interested. It even hosts Europe biggest hologram-projection, where you
can see the bison moving around!

The Bison Hillock project has proven to me to be
special and unique, a place you must visit if you are interested in the
European wilderness! The project enables people to stand at the frontline of
nature conservation and learn about its beauty and challenges. Personally, I
have learnt a lot and I was happy to be able to teach other people who are
involved in the project too! I am sure that more special events will take place
in the upcoming years, so I would recommend everybody to support and visit this
magnificent place in the green heart of Europe! I thank WWF Romania and
Rewilding Europe once again for giving me the opportunity to join their work to
make Europe a wilder place!