The Danube Delta: Healing the Scars of Romania’s Greatest Natural Resource

Words: Catalin Gruia
Photos: Dan Dinu
October 2023

Imagine a place so extraordinary that even a seasoned traveler like NatGeo photographer Costas Dumitrescu, who has been all around the globe, compares it to “being on another planet.” This amazing destination, which the Romanian explorer returns to “at least once a year,” is none other than the Danube Delta, right in his homeland. “As someone raised in the city, the unreal abundance of fish and birds, its unique smell, and the sense of boundlessness and mystery within the delta’s towering reed walls still amaze me to this day,” says Dumitrescu.

At the top of any foreign visitor’s must-see list, the Danube Delta – the youngest Romanian land (having emerged in the last 15 – 20,000 years) – is a collection of superlatives: UNESCO World Heritage Site status, a RAMSAR site and NATURA 2000 area, it features 15 heritage sites (including Castres, Greek, and Byzantine fortresses); it comprises 30 types of ecosystems, and hosts over 9,500 species of plants and animals.

But the list doesn’t end there. The delta is home to the world’s largest compact area of reed beds and the largest colony of pelicans on the planet. The more than 400 lakes in the lagoon complex, covered in the summer with carpets of water lilies, thistles, mint, and several other aquatic plants, are interrupted by the sandy banks of the sea fields. There are also impressive bodies of forests with an astonishing exhibition of trees interwoven with wild climbing plants that make you  feel like stepping into a giant jungle. And of course, most importantly, the delta is where millions of birds from Europe, Asia, and Africa come to nest – a paradise for birdwatchers. In fact, it is home to 360 bird species.

Carmina Nițescu, who has been organizing kayak photo tours in the Danube Delta alongside her husband Călin Stan for years, describes the area’s unique charm: “Even during the summer months, mornings are cold. But the fog makes things more interesting: you come across all kinds of birds almost impossible to see during the day, like the night heron. At the entrance to Lac Rădacinos (a popular natural lake), you might come across a fisherman checking his nets. Seagulls or pelicans lazily float on the water beside the boats, patiently waiting for something to happen.”

When the river reaches Pătlăgeanca, a Romanian village of about 130 residents, it splits in two. The northern branch (Chilia)  extends 104 km, carrying about 60% of the Danube’s water and alluvium. The southern branch (Tulcea) flows southward until it reaches Ceatal (Furca) Sfântu Gheorghe. At this point, the river divides once again. Sulina, the short road in the middle, is permanently dredged and maintained for navigation along its 71 km. The Sfântu Gheorghe branch deviates to the southeast and, after 112 km, reaches the sea, forming the Sacalin islands. 

Here are the broad water lines of the second largest delta in Europe (5800 km2), a living organism in continuous reconfiguration that grows annually by about 40 sqm thanks to the 67 million tons of sediments brought by the Danube.

From a geological point of view, the delta is in a mobile region of the Earth’s crust called the Danube Delta Platform, and its structure consists of a crystalline basement overlaid by a kind of sedimentary cover, a succession of Paleozoic, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous, Neogene, and Quaternary deposits. After a formation process that lasted millions of years, today, we are in danger of destroying the peak of this geo-biological scaffold in a fraction of a second.

People have inhabited the delta since ancient times without their footprints to matter. It wasn’t until 1857 that the devouring spirit of the Anthropocene began to make its mark. This pivotal shift followed the Treaty of Paris, which led to the establishment of the European Commission of the Danube. Between 1865-1902, the Sulina River branch, today recognized as the poorest in terms of biodiversity, was made navigable. But it was the intervention of the socialist planned economy for the intensive exploitation of natural resources that really put the Danube Delta to the test. Over more than four decades of forced industrialization during communism, 100,000 ha were dammed, 85,000 were transformed into fisheries, agriculture, and forestry, and local people were employed in factories of all kinds. Following a visit in 1991, the explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau said he saw a “mixture of the gorgeous and the horrible” and found it “incredible how it stayed alive after what you did to it.”

Although communism has passed, its wounds can still be found everywhere, either glaringly visible, like the gloomy ruins of the sand quarry or the dilapidated blocks where wild donkeys grazed at Caraorman, or hidden from view in the torn fabric of the biodiversity of palustrine, fluvial ecosystems, and coastal areas.

In the early years of post-communist freedom, resourcefulness and a disregard for the law led to poaching and economic activities that began to put pressure on the biosphere. “The delta is supervised by five bodies with control and protection roles. However, they are almost neutralized by poachers. I remember how the head of the Delta Police was wringing his hands, not knowing how to persuade the drivers of the cars to change. Most of them were old security guards turned into poachers’ informants for a fee,” wrote journalist Liviu Mihaiu, former governor of the Danube Delta, in an article published in the local edition of National Geographic magazine in 2009.

After the Revolution, affluent people from Romania built sumptuous holiday villas here, disturbing the waters and soul of the place with opulence, rapacity, and high-speed boats. Locals began to rush for wealth, seeking to emulate them. Some turned to poaching, while others embraced the destructive development model of chaotic weekend tourism. At a glance, you can understand what has happened in the last 20 years by passing by the village of Crișan, which stretches along the cliff for seven km dotted with villas, cabins, guesthouses, and elegant pontoons, next to ruined fishermen’s houses. Or by strolling along the path already deformed by concrete slabs through the perpetual construction site of holiday accommodations and buildings in the Lipovian village Mila 23, the most sought-after by tourists.

Saving the Delta

Guide Iliuță Goean fears that nothing will be left to show visitors in a few years. The shadow of a new form of tourism frowns on delta’s face – one of fast travel, where tourists try to cover everything in just one day. “During the summer, when the lakes and canals are less than a meter deep, thousands of boats zip through them eight hours a day. Almost the entire volume of water in a narrow channel passes through the propeller cone of a 200-300 horsepower engine, which comes at 70-80 km/h. Imagine how many fish get caught in that propeller! Also toads, frogs, crayfish, and birds. The food chain is broken, the vegetation is destroyed. We are no longer just talking about microorganisms, pollution, and the release of gasses underwater. If you break a link in the chain of life, it’s over,” he says. 

A Bucharest native, in love with the Danube Delta since childhood, Goean moved here about 20 years ago and advocates enjoying nature through slow travel. He believes that visitors can largely influence the delta’s future. “First of all, choose an authorized operator, which is listed on the Ministry of Tourism’s website,” suggests the guide. “There are a lot of advertisements on the net by obscure PFAs posing as travel agencies. The boat should have low to /medium speed, below 25-30 km/h. Then, pay attention to three things: you want a guided tour, slow travel, and an uncovered boat. If you choose these three elements correctly, even the transfer from the shore to the Balta can be a wonderful experience.”

Goean is not alone in fighting for responsible tourism in the area. In the last decade, a movement focused on saving the delta and reviving the local community’s identity has also emerged. The multiple kayak-canoe champion Ivan Patzaichin and the architect Teodor Frolu founded an NGO in 2010 to teach ecotourism to locals. According to Teodor Frolu, the vice-president of the Ivan Patzaichin Association – Mila 23, “to have a balance between the exploitation of the Delta and its preservation as a natural ecosystem, you must return to traditions,” which you should bring up to date through income-generating solutions. The locals should “reclaim the inheritance they threw away, without realizing it was valuable.”

The inhabitants are the descendants of the Russian Lipovians and the Uranian Hahols, who arrived in the Danube Delta in the 18th century. Around 8,000 Cossacks (also known as Hahols) came here at the end of the 18th century after Tsarina Catherine II destroyed the military center of the Zaporozhian Cossacks in Ukraine. The Lipovians are former Don and Dnieper fishermen who left Russia and were persecuted when they refused to modernize the Russian church. After centuries of semi-isolation, when the delta became, after 1989, almost overnight, attractive to big-money tourists, these locals, gutted by the dissolution of their traditional world that began under communism, were thrown into the mix of weekend tourism.

For the Ivan Patzaichin Association – Mila 23, regardless of any suitable measures that may be decided in Bucharest, the responsibility of preserving the balance in the Danube Delta lies with the residents. They must find a way to restore equilibrium, keeping their traditions while ensuring decent incomes. 

For these locals, who may have felt ashamed of traditions like the oar or their parental houses, seen as symbols of backwardness, the association designed and patented the “conotca” – a combination of canoe and boat – to rent to tourists. This encourages fishing where visitors are accompanied by a local. Tourists are taken to eat soup cooked on the spot at a refuge. The ecotourism infrastructure in Crișan also set up a bird sanctuary for wildlife photography in Caraorman, and organized a gastronomic route in Mila 23. And much, much more.

In Lipovean, fish takes the spotlight, cooked to perfection by the locals, and Mile 23 is probably the best place to eat it. The cooks here have won all the culinary competitions organized in the delta. In tiny houses, they cook according to the day’s menu, divinely! The smaller the guesthouse, the better the chances of eating fresh fish from the delta. And the bigger the hotel, the riskier your fish might come from overseas. 

Why? Guide Iliuță Goean also introduces us to the tangled secrets of laws, markets, and restaurant kitchens. “No hotel can buy fish directly from the fisherman. The law obliges the fisherman to take the fish to the market. This is where the high-quality fish (carp, catfish, pike, salmon, found in smaller quantities) and all the low-quality fish (crucian carp, redfish, etc.) are sold. Furthermore, the markets force the buyers to give you x kg of high-quality fish, but only packaged with y kg of poor-quality fish. At a hotel where you need 200 kg of fish daily, imagine how much staff you need to clean, filet, and portion that much poor-quality fish. And then, hotels prefer to buy semi-prepared products from supermarkets, giving them a faster cooking flow. There is distribution by Metro by Selgros: the ship comes to the Danube Delta, docks at the pontoon, and drops boxes of frozen fish imported from Asia, Africa, and other regions. The drama begins: you may wake up to find that from a Pangasius comes a wonderful filet of  Zander, and so on.”

Room for Hope

The pelican, the symbol of the Danube Delta, perfectly embodies the spectacular yet delicate interplay of strength and fragility, clumsiness and elegance within this ecosystem. These large birds with wingspans of up to 3m and long beaks, like a species of chilled pterosaurs from another world, are highly vulnerable in the face of modernity. A few centuries ago, their majestic flocks gracefully dominated the skies across Europe. As civilization advanced westward, pelicans retreated to the continent’s southeast, where they fared relatively well until the end of the 19th century. The Austrian naturalist Eduard Hodek, who made several research trips to the area between 1869 and 1886, wrote, perhaps exaggerating, about the presence of “millions” of pelicans inhabiting the lands between the Danube and the sea.

The colony of common pelicans at the Roșca-Buhaiova Reserve, the largest in Europe, numbers about 21,000 individuals today, according to an inventory made by the Romanian Ornithological Society in 2018. Be sure to try to see a flock of pelicans while you’re in the delta. Nothing seems to distill the grand spectacle of wildlife in the biosphere. You need a good guide, luck, and patience, just as pelicans need their hunt with precise rules in a script that evolution has perfected over tens of thousands of years. “Look at them; look at how they throw the water up. That’s their style of fishing. Several pelicans gather and form a circle in the middle of the water, or a semicircle if they have a shore nearby,” exclaims Iliuță Goean.

Pelicans are extremely patient when hunting. They circle a school of fish from afar and begin, step by step, to tighten the circle. Suddenly, they all put their heads in the water – and throw the water out to scare the fish. That’s how they push them to the middle. After they’ve narrowed the circle enough, the big frenzy begins. On the surface, only the tails are visible, then you see them rise again, all in unison. They repeat the pattern until their bellies are full. And their goiters.

“We have this treasure trove of biodiversity; it’s not something to be taken lightly,” Goean says. “This is what a trip to the delta should be: a biodiversity lesson in Romania’s most beautiful aquatic amphitheater, where people can understand the importance of preserving habitats.”

Conservation Carpathia: Bringing Us to the Wild Side

Words: Lavinia Gogu & Andrea Dimofte
Photos: Bogdan Balaceanu
August 2023

Their interest in wolves brought them together, but their love for Romania’s abundant forests – and for each other – pushed Christoph and Barbara Promberger to build one of Europe’s largest conservation projects. Christoph Promberger always had a passion for nature conservation. After finishing his master’s thesis on wolf behavior in the Yukon Territory, Canada, the German biologist started The Carpathian Large Carnivore Project (CLCP) in Romania in 1993. It was the first project to study the behavior of Carpathian wolves and other large carnivores in the area, such as bears and lynxes. Barbara Fuerpass joined the team a few years later. She was captivated by Romania’s wilderness of the 1990s, but later also saddened by the abusive deforestation.

Romania has Europe’s largest continuous forest region, covering over six million hectares, possibly up to 500,000 hectares still virgin or at least in a close-to-original state. The Carpathian Mountains are home to the country’s most diverse mix of wildlife, hosting over 3,500 animal species. Christoph and Barbara outlined an ambitious conservation plan: to protect the Făgăraș Mountains area, part of the Carpathian Mountains in southern Transylvania and northern Walachia, by turning it into Europe’s largest forest national park – what they fondly refer to as the “European Yellowstone.” The couple founded Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) in 2009 to prevent deforestation and create the world-class wildlife reserve that protects and allows biodiversity to thrive. 

They began buying land in 2007. They aim to acquire 35,000 hectares to stop unsustainable logging and abusive exploration practices, and support ecological and wildlife restoration. The areas they bought include the Natura 2000 site in the Făgăraș Mountains and the Piatra Craiului National Park, thus provoking additional 200,000 hectares to be fully protected. In 1996, after Piatra Craiului was designated national park, the government restituted parts of it to private individuals, consequently leading to trees being cut down. That is why Christoph and Barbara could buy land, too. Following the model of other international conservative philanthropists, they intend to eventually donate the land to the state for management, with a solid and respected legal framework, to guarantee the ecosystem’s and wildlife’s preservation for future generations. They believe that a national park must belong to the nation.

In addition to acquiring land, FCC has a lot of conservation projects underway. They replant trees in areas affected by deforestation and focus on rewilding, having reintroduced bison and beavers into their natural habitat. Their next step is to bring the vultures back to the Romanian forests. They also have strong initiatives to support local communities by establishing sustainable economic opportunities. They create jobs and educational projects while encouraging conscious tourism.

Though they have been facing many challenges, Barbara and Christoph are well underway to transform their conservation initiatives into realities together with local communities. After Romania joined the EU in 2007, they could access European funds. With the country’s general economic recovery, the population’s appreciation for nature is changing. Today, many Romanians are proud of their native forests, home to the most significant European large carnivore population and one of Europe’s most important biodiversity hotspots. The younger generation, especially, is becoming more in tune with the importance of environmental protection.

After a few days of hiking together, we spoke to Christoph and Barbara in their bohemian-decorated living room at their Equus Silvania Equestrian Center, the guest house they completed in the early 2000s, near the little village of Șinca Nouă. The space was filled with books dedicated to wildlife, a piano with romantic song sheet music, and pampered cats roaming around, nesting on our laps as we spoke. As their energy filled the room, we couldn’t wait to dive deeper into their story: to better understand how the German man and the Austrian woman devoted their life to conserving Romanian forests. 

What was your first contact with Romania?

Christoph: I was doing my master’s thesis on wolves in Yukon, the northwest corner of Canada. They are amazing animals and I love them, so I decided to study their relationship with ravens. I was curious; the Natives of the Yukon know there is a deep relation between the two species and many researchers reported anecdotal observations of them spending a lot of time together during winter. When I returned to Europe to write up my findings, I wondered what to do next. I wanted to continue working with wolves, and in the early 90s, the Iron Curtain had just fallen, so Eastern Europe had become accessible. The West had more money and know-how but there were more wolves in the East. Italy had 150, Sweden 100, Portugal 300… while Romania had 3,000. Luckily, I got to know someone who worked at the Forest Research Institute in Brașov and we created a team to explore the Carpathian Mountains. That’s how I first got to Romania in 1993. We started out small, but over the years more staff and volunteers joined the team, and I decided to stay more than just a few years.

Barbara: I grew up in a rural area in Austria: I always loved spending time in the country, in nature – for me, city life would have been a tragedy. And although I didn’t grow up on a farm, I always had a close relationship with animals. So, it became obvious to me that I would be a veterinarian. But as a teenager, I realized that this profession is not about animals as much as it is about their owners. I was very disillusioned. At that time, I was reading quite a lot about the science of animal behavior, and I realized that that was the path I wanted to follow in life, so I ended up studying biology in Vienna. I wanted to work with wild animals, not sit in a lab. And like Christoph, I wanted to know more about wolves. Naturally, I headed to North America and the Yukon, Canada. 

Christoph also worked in that area in Canada, is that where you met? 

Barbara: No. Someone I met in the Yukon recommended that I meet Christoph, since he was working with wolves in Europe. He gave me his address and phone number. It’s a long story because all the information I received was wrong, and this was before the internet, so I couldn’t find him on Facebook. I eventually found out his place of work in Germany. When I finally reached him, I realized he was Bavarian by dialect, and imagined him working with captive wolves in the Bavarian Forest National Park. But luckily, he was working with the wild wolves and told me they needed someone right away. When the conversation ended, I realized I had forgotten to ask where I was supposed to go. In fact, that very same day I received an acceptance letter for a project in Poland that I had applied to. But I was more intrigued by what Christoph had told me. 

I called Christoph again and found out that it was Romania. At the time, all I knew about Romania were Ceaușescu, the orphanages and, of course, the Carpathians. I will never forget it: Christoph said that Romania is shaped like a lemon, and that right in the middle is Brașov. I arrived in Brașov a week later. It was late, dark, and people seemed reserved. But the first days I discovered the area, the surrounding villages were wonderful. At the time, I didn’t speak the language and the locals didn’t understand German, but somehow, I could understand them. I first fell in love with the country, and then with Christoph. 

Christoph: It happened over time. Barbara and I worked as a team for several years before we got together. But once we did, in 1997, we married just a year later. Sometimes you just know.

You both say you loved Romania right away. What fascinated you the most about it?

Christoph: I think the wildness of the country, as it was in the 90s. But also the wildness of the people, and I say that in a positive way. People were so connected to their environment! Of course, there were some negative aspects – like the killing of wolf cubs – but Romanian people were authentic and untainted by the western way of life. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the Bavarian forests, but when I first arrived here and saw the woods, bears, wolves, and lynxes, I understood what a forest is: beyond nature, it’s an ecosystem. When I returned to Germany, the over-managed forests there seemed soulless.

Barbara: Things were not so regulated in Romania in the ‘90s. I appreciated that a lot because there was a lot of common sense. Sometimes, a life without rules can be chaotic. But it can also allow certain freedoms and creative ideas to arise, new concepts in segments still untapped in the country at the time. We liked the idea of a real fresh start.

Why did you decide to stay here?

Christoph: We completed the Large Carnivore Project in 2003. We had an offer to go to Scotland together to work in conservation. But when we visited, we found a gloomy landscape. A local told us that we were lucky to have a beautiful day. “It’s the first day in half a year when it doesn’t rain,” he said. I prefer a snowy winter to a rainy one. In addition, I had become very attached to Romania; it gives me a sense of belonging. I realized that Romania had become home when I was visiting Germany. Back in Romania, we wanted to open an equestrian center to develop equestrian tourism because Barbara loves horses. We were very naive about what it means to open a guest house, but in 2004 we opened the center. It was exciting but intense, since we also had two small children. We did almost everything by ourselves. We took care of the horses and the kids while cooking and trying to make money as well. We worked on international projects too. 

How did you create the Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) and what is its mission?

Christoph: I went to the Piatra Craiului National Park in 2006 to print a large map. I spoke by chance to the director of the park, who told me that with the restitution of forests to people, who owned them before they were nationalized during communism, people started to cut trees without anyone stopping them – since everyone, from the forester to the authorities, was bribed. It was shocking and frustrating because we had been involved with the research project there, and national parks are supposed to exist to protect nature. With the fall of communism in 1989, the government privatized many of its formerly nationalized forests. The National Forestry Directorate distributed protected park lands to private individuals, who could do whatever they wanted with them. Many just wanted to make money, selling them off to logging companies. Soon everyone in the area got involved: from the police to the forest guard. Thus, the timber mafia was born.

Trying to find solutions, I spoke to the park director who said: “The only solution is to find someone who would buy these forests and protect them.” We laughed together, as we thought that wouldn’t happen. But a few weeks later we found a Swiss donor who decided to get involved. That’s how we got the first funds and started the foundation to save the Piatra Craiului National Park. This was before we set our eyes on the Făgăraș Mountains, which have the potential to become the largest national park in Europe, the “European Yellowstone.”

Barbara: In fact, the vision to create a national park in the Făgăraș Mountains took shape over time. Since everything started as a land acquisition project for conservation purposes, we did not communicate our project to not influence land prices. But when we also began buying deforested areas, we had other challenges. For example, forest laws require replanting to occur two years after deforestation. And then, we realized that the land we bought needed to be protected from illegal logging, so we raised funds to finance forest guards. That’s how we started communicating the project.

How have you been perceived by the local community and what challenges have you encountered?

Christoph: The name I got from the people in the area is “Neamțu,” meaning “the German” in Romanian. I even appeared that way in newspaper headlines, so we will probably always be considered foreigners, even if we live here for the rest of our lives. But we get along well with the community. People appreciate the fact that we learned the language and that we promote the country. However, our nationality was also used as propaganda by the timber mafia. We were demonized, accused of stealing resources and selling the country. People who didn’t know us were inclined to believe that was true.

Barbara: When I told the public that our purpose is to buy land to protect it, some even suspected we had found gold. The idea that our goal was purely philanthropic was dubious to many Romanians since these kinds of projects are not common practice here. 

How do you involve Romanians in FCC projects?

Barbara: We have a volunteer program, and although we’ve often been told we don’t have enough Romanian volunteers, this is quickly changing. The younger Romanian generation now believes that it is an activity that benefits their personal development. From the CVs we currently receive, we can tell that many people have experience in volunteering. Our team now has 130 people who are all passionate about the cause, even though it is a challenging job, whether you are working as a security guard, planting trees, or organizing events.

Which of your conservation projects do you think will have the most substantial impact on the future of Romania?

Barbara: We are still buying land, but we will probably stop at some point. We will protect the forests and find ways to compensate individual forest owners for conservation, rather than deforestation. We will continue to reforest degraded landscapes, to complete the missing links in the ecosystem – we started with the reintroduction of bison and beavers into the wild. The reintroduction of vultures is the next step. They became extinct due to killing and poisoning; people poisoned wolves, and when the vultures consumed their carcasses, they, too, died from poisoning. Back then, people considered wolves, not bears, the main enemy because they attacked flocks. 

What is the most pressing conservation issue: deforestation or illegal hunting?

Barbara: Deforestation is more problematic because it has a much longer impact: if you cut down a forest, it won’t recover for the next 120 years. Although it needs to be controlled, hunting doesn’t damage the ecosystem as much as habitat loss. Many animal populations regenerate faster than the forest.

Christoph: I’m not as relaxed about hunting. The functions of an ecosystem depend on wild animals. 

What do you think about the supposed country’s bear overpopulation problem?

Barbara: Nobody has any proof of the claimed growing bear population. We see many on social media and on the side of the streets, but what do we see? Public opinion is influenced by the media, so it has become a topic of debate. Hunters are upset because trophy hunting has become illegal, so they are incentivized to show how bears are causing more trouble. I have lived in Romania for 25 years and know that these things have happened before. Every year, people get killed by bears. But back in the day, it was usually just a small mention on a newspaper corner. People used to be afraid of wolves much more than they are of bears now. 

Christoph: We’re not saying there aren’t more bears – we are saying that we don’t know, and nobody knows. We do believe that bears have started showing up in areas where they weren’t seen in the last 20-30 years.

Barbara: Also, the habit of going into the forest didn’t exist before. Now people go hiking and mountain biking – so of course, more bears are seen.

You have studied the behavior of wild animals in the Carpathians for ten years; what should be our reaction if we meet a bear?

Christoph: There are two situations in which bears can be dangerous. When you catch a female bear with cubs, she may attack you to protect her cubs. The second case, which can easily be found in many parts of Romania, like in Sinaia, Predeal, Băile Tușnad, Transfăgărășan and others, is when bears fed by tourists have lost their fear of us. Also, once they associate humans with food, all is good if they get it. But if they are not fed, any factor can cause them to become aggressive.

Barbara: That’s why people must keep their trash out of reach. For now, the government seems to be only trying to find a solution to legalize trophy hunting to reduce the bear population, but luckily, they are constrained by European legislation. I am convinced that even if half of the bears disappeared, the situation would not change much. Trophy hunters will not shoot the cubs, but will instead target large bears, which are more impressive on the wall. We need to make sure that garbage is not accessible to bears, that there are patrols to scare them, and that they are not fed by people. These methods are used all over the world. Ultimately, a fed bear is a dead bear. 

Why and when do you intend to donate the land purchased through FCC to the State?

Barbara: When we founded the FCC, we emphasized that the land would not belong to the foundation forever, but that it would be returned to Romanians, provided that the area is protected. The government will have to offer a very concise way to manage and finance the national park in the future.

Christoph: Douglas Tompkins, a famous conservationist and philanthropist, said: “By definition, a national park must belong to the nation.” I followed his example. He bought a million hectares in Patagonia, South America, to create several national parks, and then offered the land to the state on the condition that it manage it and eventually add territory to the preserved area. That is what we intend to do.

Have you always been environmentalists? What is your lifestyle now?

Barbara: I think we are lifelong learners. I remember in college I wasn’t aware of all the consequences of my actions. I learned many things later. But when it comes to nature preservation, I learned from my parents. They taught me how to recycle. How to not be wasteful in any regard. We try to offer a completely vegetarian menu when we put together events or conferences. If we offer meat, we make sure we know its source. 

Christoph: But our lives and jobs have quite a large carbon footprint. This year we’ve already had many flights for foundation purposes, which of course, is a disaster. So I can’t point the finger at anyone because we’re not perfect. But I am aware and try to tip the balance as much as possible through small, constant actions. If I can change something for the better, I do. We use a Dutch company that makes phones with materials from areas where child exploitation is prohibited. They do not use resources from war zones, everything is recycled, and any component of the phone can be changed/repaired: for example, if my camera is broken, I can replace it. There are thousand such examples, and the more we follow, the better it is.

When you become aware of the consequences of your actions and the importance of preserving nature, you start to question every decision you make. 

“Wild Romania”: A Conversation with the Man Behind the Documentary

Words: Catalin Gruia
Photos: Dan Dinu
August 2023

On paper, things may look perfect: 13 national parks, 14 nature parks, two geo-parks, several hundred Natura 2000 sites (covering Romania’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats), and reserves of local interest. In Romania, you can find the Danube Delta, Europe’s largest wetland (which makes up 33% of the length of the Danube), 50% of the Carpathian chain, and 65% of the virgin forests of the European Union. Almost a quarter of Romania is declared a protected area. But if you look a little closer, you see that national parks occupy only 1% of the country’s territory, and strictly protected areas are very few.

Yes, Romania is “the real Noah’s Ark” of the continent’s biodiversity, but more and more species, from the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) to the European bison (Bison bonasus) or even the Romanian hamster (Mesocricetus newtoni), risk disappearing. Our nature is rich, but we dedicate too little money to protect it – and seem to be in no rush to change anything. 

Who can explain how things are in reality? After spending 450 days throughout 10 years – through 45,000 km – in 30 of the country’s most important protected areas, nature photographer Dan Dinu knows the situation on the ground better than most people. He is the director of Romania’s most famous and elaborate wildlife documentary film, “Wild Romania,” offering unique images from spectacular regions and singular stories about the country’s biodiversity. Dan Dinu has been practicing wildlife photography for over 20 years, learning by heart the true meaning of perseverance: waiting and listening to what nature has to say until the shot appears. 

How did your passion for wildlife photography begin?

It all started with my interest in nature, fueled by little adventures from childhood when I was venturing through the forests. Later on, I discovered The Zoological Atlas, a book that influenced many children of my generation. It pushed us to dream of adventures in exotic jungles or remote deserts. Although I flirted with several photographic genres initially, I remained dedicated to nature, and, more recently, I took a step toward documentary film. It was a natural transition. Everything settled in 2010, when I began the Wild Romania project, which became the cornerstone of my career. Now, I use photography and film for conservation and educational projects. Beyond any coercive measure, education will help us most to change our perception of the importance of nature in our lives.

How difficult are wild animals to photograph in Romania, compared to fauna elsewhere?

It is not easy to be a wildlife photographer in Romania. Romania was the hardest for me compared to other areas of the world I’ve traveled to. Our animals are much more shy and hard to see. I took the first good picture of a bear only after I already had fine images of chimpanzees, black rhinoceros, or even a blue whale, certainly much rarer animals! Among the emblematic native species, lynx and wolves are the most difficult to photograph. Lynx, like any feline, know how to camouflage themselves – I have probably walked past them many times without even noticing them. On the other hand, wolves sense you (and avoid you) from a very long distance.

To photograph a lynx on the Piatra Craiului mountains, I once had to wait 24 hours (12 per day), in the winter, at -10 °C (14 °F). I used a camouflage tent and was frozen and numb because I couldn’t get out or move much. After two days, when barely a sliver of light was left, a lynx confidently came to the tent and offered me a magical portrait. An image that I did not dare to dream of and which became the emblem of the Wild Romania project. 

And talking of Wild Romania, what was the most memorable or funniest adventure while filming the documentary?

After more than 10 years of completing the Wild Romania project, I have had countless adventures in the field. We were surprised by a flood in the Ponicova Cave. We were rained on and soaked to the skin innumerable times on the mountain. We were put to the test by strong winds in Făgăraș and Ciucaș. And much, much more…! Even if sometimes it was difficult for us, we had fun. At the end of the project, we decided to include all these adventures in a film that would tell our story and the making of the documentary. This film was very well received by the public and I hope it encourages those who want to take the first steps toward this field.

What do you think was the impact of the project?

The project’s two main components, the photo album and the documentary film, played a massive role in creating a community of passionate people who supported every step of the way. The photo album was initially intended for a smaller print run, but we doubled the initial print run following many pre-orders. We thus had the opportunity to donate over 600 albums to schools, libraries and environmental NGOs, and to print 9,000 albums so far. I am happy that this unique book about our country’s biodiversity has been so well received, and I hope it will influence new generations to appreciate and protect nature. 

The documentary Wild Romania, the first film of this scope created exclusively by a Romanian team, was very well received by the public. It was released at the Transilvania International Film Festival (TIFF) in front of over 2,500 people. It was accepted to 20 major festivals and won eight awards. It was a unique opportunity for many spectators and film lovers to better understand Romania’s biodiversity. 

Added to these primary components are photography exhibitions, conferences, a mobile app and many other minor things to take the project forward. What’s more, we founded the Wild Romania Association to be able to get involved in projects aimed at the protection and conservation of nature through a visual component. Through this project and the ones that will follow, we will also make a much-needed contribution to preserving a healthy nature.

What thought crossed your mind when you started working on “Wild Romania?” 

We set off with a very altruistic idea: to show others what a beautiful country we have. It wasn’t long before I realized I didn’t fully know it either. This project made me understand nature better. I learned more about this field and made all the necessary connections to truly appreciate its importance in our lives. We often forget that we cannot exist without nature, and are part of it. It does not belong to us; we belong to it. Our arrogance took us to great heights, making us invent absolute comfort behind concrete and glass cities. But it also made us forget that we breathe nature, eat nature, and are nature. Without the 10 years I spent in the wilderness for this project, I probably wouldn’t have had the time to look at things so philosophically.

So why do we need wilderness?

Because we evolved as a species along with other animals and depended on them. We cannot go forward into an utterly dystopian future where we only eat synthetic products and breathe artificial air. We could be capable of this – we have shown that humanity can overcome any challenge – but now is the time to return to our roots and put all our intelligence to work to protect the wild. It’s not hard to do that. Sometimes, we only need to let nature thrive on its own, don’t harm it. She helps us unconditionally, sometimes without us even realizing it. Have you ever wondered how many extra insecticides a city would need to get rid of mosquitoes if there weren’t urban bats or woodpeckers and other insectivorous birds to eat them? Or how many rodents would thrive on the streets if nocturnal birds of prey or hawks did not keep their uncontrolled breeding in check? We’d probably put some speakers if we didn’t hear birds singing in the parks. They say we don’t truly appreciate what we have until we lose it. Let’s not get there; let’s protect what we have. The efforts to bring back the wilderness will be much greater than those to keep it as it is now.

I suspect there are few local species left that you haven’t encountered in your explorations. Is there an elusive one you dream of for your personal photo atlas?

Having managed to photograph the lynx, the wolf now occupies the top spot on my list. I had the opportunity to see one very close that was chasing a deer, but unfortunately I only saw it from the car. The wolf wasn’t scared of us. He looked at us for a few moments and then slowly moved away. I could have taken a photo without a problem if I didn’t have all the gear in the trunk! At least I learned one thing: to always have the camera at hand on roads in the middle of nature. So the search continues. 

What is, for you, Romania’s leading natural wealth?  

Romania still has a well-defined and protected core of wilderness. This wilderness core is the main wealth of the country, a biodiversity hotspot to keep the natural values unaltered. It is essential locally and for the entire continent because we have a genetic bank for almost all of Europe’s fauna and flora. 

For a foreign tourist with only one trip to  our country, where would you recommend them to go and why?

It’s difficult to choose just one place, but the Danube Delta makes us unique on a European level. It is one of the few places on the continent where there is wildlife you can only find in the African savannas or during the great migrations: the time when several thousand birds go fishing, pelicans and cormorants alike, it is remarkable! Hundreds of seagulls accompany the group, and dozens of egrets or herons sit at the edge of the reeds to catch a fish confused by the ambush. It’s a moment that cannot leave you indifferent. 

Could you give us more recommendations of places or programs for wildlife watching accessible to the average tourist?

The Carpathians are definitely in second place. You can’t help but think of their wildness when walking through Romania’s nature. I would point here especially to the Alpine Region, whether from Făgăraș, Retezat, or Piatra Craiului. Although they are not the highest mountains in Europe, nor the longest, they make up for it in the diversity of their landscape. A guided tour to a bear observatory – one that has been appropriately and ethically done, where the animals are not abused – is an exciting option to see these animals in their natural environment.

A third recommendation would be the virgin forests. Our country owns approximately 65% of the European Union’s pristine forests, and these inexhaustible beauty resources are at the core of our biodiversity. To really feel such a place is fascinating. Like interconnected wires in a tight fabric, the myriad relationships between its elements, from the tallest beech trees to the tiniest mushrooms, are fabulous. With an excellent guide to explain them, you can understand the importance of such a place that functions like a giant organism.

Last but not least, I would add three other fascinating areas to the list: the Apuseni Mountains – with thousands of caves and some of the largest karst complexes in this part of Europe– Dobrogea – with its unique steppe landscapes and the Măcin Mountains, among the continent’s oldest mountains –and the Iron Gates Natural Park. The Danube meets the Carpathians in this place and forms an absolutely spectacular landscape.

All these recommendations are amazing for the tourism sector, but  let’s come back to sustainability: what would be your first important step if you became the next environment minister?

I would have not one, but three measures. The first would be a stringent regulation of wood exploitation and an obligation to replant  and ecologically reconstruct the disused areas. Thus we lay the foundations for better management of resources, and those involved will understand that they must have long-term conservation measures among their obligations. The second step would be a ban on the unnecessary use of plastic. If nature wrapped bananas or oranges in a protective peel, why do we wrap them in a non-recyclable plastic film? The third measure would be the renaturation of all wetlands along the large rivers or the Danube Delta. They can be the fastest way to store carbon and help develop biodiversity, as they are a sanctuary for fish reproduction. As a bonus measure, I would return custody of protected natural areas to NGOs, possibly in partnership with the state authorities that manage them now. I would find a solution for natural and national parks to have direct funding from the ministry and not depend on Romsilva, the National Directorate of Forests, a state-owned enterprise responsible for the forests owned by the Romanian state, and the management of hunting and fishing grounds.

What are, in your view, the main threats to Romania’s biodiversity?

We have a blessed nature, but no money or rush to preserve it. A quarter of Romania is declared a protected area, but if you look closely, connecting  habitat patches is a problem. National parks occupy only 1% of the national territory, with very few strictly protected areas. Yes, we are a real Noah’s Ark of European biodiversity, but more and more species are at risk of being pushed overboard. 

Climate change, pollution, and loss of forest areas are the main threats here – and across the planet. Global warming has already been affecting us for many years, and the effects are visible at every step: shorter winters, lack of snow, and periods of prolonged drought. This year, we saw how the Danube dried up in a manner rarely seen before. All of these things put a lot of pressure on animals and habitats. Industrial pollution may have decreased in recent years; many communist compounds are closed, and the remaining ones are aligned with European standards, but the plastic problem remains. It’s sad to walk through nature and see so much trash thrown randomly, especially near towns. The loss of forests is also a problem. Let’s be serious: we cannot live without wood, and our country has plenty of this resource. They just have to exploit it sparingly and in a way that is fair to nature. On the other hand, wood is the only building material that stores carbon, making it particularly important to protect  for us to transition into a society that limits the release of CO2 into the atmosphere. Although we are threatened by the same global problems, we can thrive locally if we manage our resources responsibly.

Connecting Forests with Music: a Conversation with Nico de Transilvania

Words: Lavinia Gogu
Photos: Marius Sumlea
August 2023

As an old saying goes: in life, you should manage to build a house, have a child and plant a tree. DJ and music producer Nicoleta Cărpineanu has done them all. Through her social involvement in forest conservation, she has helped plant over 150,000 trees throughout the UK and Romania.

For Nico, better known by her stage name, Nico de Transilvania, the forest is the cradle of her childhood, a source of creative inspiration and a space to develop a noble mission: the preservation and reforestation of degraded landscapes.

Nico migrated to the UK 25 years ago. She now lives in Brighton with her son Rumi. But as she spent time building a life there, while traveling the world producing electronic music and teaching yoga, her soul stayed at home, in Romania. The artist composes a musical style she calls “folkloric electronic.” She promotes Transylvanian folklore treasures through her music, together with local artists who still preserve Romanian traditions, such as the sound of the flute.

The artist founded her own production house, Musică Without Frontiers, in 2018. After roaming the native plains, collecting stories and sounds, she composed her first album, Be One. She founded Forests Without Frontiers in 2019, a charitable initiative whose mission is to replant forest landscapes. She was named Ambassador of the Făgăraș Mountains by the Foundation Conservation Carpathia in 2021, so she initiated campaigns for raising funds for planting trees and promoted the initiative of regenerating degraded landscapes to spread awareness regarding the cause. And, in 2022, she completed her latest album, Interbeing.

I met Nico in the old town of Bucharest over a coffee. Although on this occasion she was coming to her home country in a difficult time, to attend her mother’s memorial, she explained to me that she also wanted to go to Nucșoara, a commune in the northern part of the country at the foot of its highest peak. She felt the need to be surrounded by nature to record forest sounds and folklore elements for her upcoming album, a creative residency funded by Cambridge University and the Romanian National Foundation of Culture (AFCN). 

I admired her floral dress, paired with a studded denim jacket and a scarf with orange tassels, an outfit that inspires a bohemian air – a free spirit. I could tell that she has a high degree of empathy even before I found out that she had devoted herself to charity work, just from the way she addressed the waitress. She told me about her musical journey and her desire to help the Romanian forests flourish. But she also shared a glimpse into the events that inspired her to start the charity and gain a new perspective in life.

It’s been two decades since you moved to England. Tell me about the time you left Romania.

I have always had an altruistic component. I started doing volunteer work at the age of 17. I would go to the reading room to study after class, and then to an orphanage in Zalău, in Transylvania, close to my hometown, to spend time and help with the children there – even just to hug them. Through that experience I got in touch with a charity organization in the UK. The charity invited me to speak in schools and in locations where they were raising funds. So, when I turned 18, I went to England to join their team as a volunteer while studying – and stayed in the UK because I fell in love with an Englishman.

What memories did you leave Romania with?

I grew up at the foot of the Meseș Mountains, surrounded by nature, in a village called Ortelec, with grandma Rozalia. I learned a lot from her, including how to live in harmony with nature, the forest, traditions, songs and their local stories. Grandma died at 80, when I was 10 years old. In her last years she couldn’t walk much, so she spent more time with my family. She had long white hair, and I remember combing it, then making two pigtails and tying it into a bun. She sang me songs from the old days and told me about her many children. She raised 15 children, 10 born to her and five step children. I was never bored with her. 

After a few years in the UK, when I was 21, I started missing home so much that I wanted to go back. But I realized that I could actually do more for my country by living in the UK. Now, when I miss home, I make Romanian dishes. I enjoy making sarmale and polenta. 

How is your life in Brighton?

I have now lived in Brighton for 20 years. Life here is serene. I live by the sea with my boy, who is 18, soon going to college. Brighton is almost an hour from London, and it’s also where I have the office for the NGO I launched four years ago, Forest Without Frontiers. It’s a multicultural city – with people from all over the world – and musically and artistically it’s a rich, bohemian and eclectic place.

Tell me how you got into the music scene.

My father worked in hospitality, he was a chef. My mother was passionate about music; she was blessed with a special voice and used to sing at our church. I was basically raised with a brass band, with ancient songs and fiddlers. 

When I arrived in England, I studied choreography, dance therapy, performing arts, and communication studies. Practically, all the courses you couldn’t do here. The passion for djing started during that period. I had a friend who loved music, and we bought together a mixing desk, and started mixing. I can say that this passion came from the idea of creating mixes that I would like to dance to. So I started composing my own collection of songs at home. 

I realized I liked it, and a few years later, I started mixing Balkan music. 

So how did you decide to start mixing Balkan music?

I went to Asia with my friend Nick Carling, who is now a DJ in Brighton. The journey began in Sri Lanka, then I was in India and Nepal, then returned to Sri Lanka. I did my first month-long intensive yoga class there while mixing at night. During that time, I rediscovered a part of me I think I had forgotten since I was a child: a kind of emotional freedom. When I returned to England, Nick gifted me a CD of Fanfara Ciocârlia (a well-known band of Balkan music). He said: “Nico, I know you miss home, look what I bought you.” I started mixing it at parties – at that time we organized a lot of parties. And I bought more Balkan music CDs. 

I then traveled for 10 years all over the world and mixed Balkan electronic music. But until DJing became more demanding, I continued my work as a yoga teacher whilst doing charity work. And I ended up working as an Associate Producer on the movie Wild Carpathia (a documentary series exploring Romania’s panoramic Carpathian Mountains) for at least four years. I contributed to the first three episodes. We did research, chose stories, film locations, and selected music. And that’s how I discovered some people who are doing good work here, in Romania, to preserve the environment and forests.

Why did you choose to call yourself Nico de Transilvania?

I’ve been calling myself that for almost 12 years. I was in Sydney, and I met some locals who were impressed that I was from Transylvania because they couldn’t believe that this place actually existed. So I decided to name myself Nico de Transilvania to represent my place of origin.

How would you describe your musical style and the music you compose?

I love hip-hop, funk, blues, and electronic dance music. Folkloric elements are at the core of the music I produce. I call it electronic folk with jazzy notes. I really like the trumpet and saxophone. I mix a melange I call “global electronic music.” Traveling around the world, I realized how interconnected music is: the Egyptian flute is similar to that of the Indian, whilst reminding me of many Mexican and Romanian elements. 

I love playing at cultural events. I once played at the Art Dubai Fair. I started with a song from Pakistan, followed by a song from Romania, then one from France, after that, songs from Egypt and India. After the show, someone came to ask me about a song he liked a lot. I told him the song was Palestinian and then I learned he was from Israel. That’s how I came up with the name of my label: Musică Without Frontiers. There are no borders on the dancefloor, we are all one. And that’s where I got the inspiration to name my first album Be One, which is about unity and humanity.

What can you tell me about your second album?

Interbieng is a project funded by AFCN and the University of Cambridge through the Endangered Landscapes Artist Residencies program. I worked with Silvia Dan, who sings on the album and whom you see in the photos. The entire album is recorded in nature, right in the Nucșoara area, where we plant trees.  

Both music and charity work are my passions, and I am happy I have managed to combine them, along with my love for tradition and the care for the elderly.

How did you become involved in protecting the Romanian forests, and how is your music connected? 

Growing up with a strong connection to nature and inclination towards charity work, I always felt the need to protect our forests. And merging it with music was very natural to me. In 2018 I was at Sarmisegetusa, in the Orăștiei Mountains, making a project to preserve the virgin forests in that area, and I talked to a journalist who suggested that I listen to a flautist from the area. That’s how I met Babu Ion, the artist who inspired my initiative – and one of the flute players I collaborated with for the Be One album. He took his flute and said that I must listen to it in the middle of the forest because that’s the only way I would “feel the magic.” He was incredible. His flute recital was inspiring, but also him as an artist and human, so I promised him that I would find a way to make his talent known. 

Just a few months later, we got funding and started recording together with other whistlers in the area. They suggested that I also meet Buna Ana, who is the village singer. Unfortunately, when I met Buna Ana she had lost her voice. But luckily she is also a talented writer of poetry, so I asked her to write me a poem. This is how the first song from the first album, “Doina,” got created.

While spending time there, I spoke with many locals who all told me of their worries regarding deforestation. So I decided to donate everything I earned from the album to plant trees in the Orăștiei area.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to plant any trees in the mountains of Orăștie. We couldn’t find an area in which a protection contract could be signed to guarantee that they wouldn’t be cut. Luckily I already had contacts from working with Wild Carpathia, and that’s how we were able to set up Forest Without Frontiers. We now plant trees in protected areas.

How did the local people with whom you created the album react when they listened to it?

I presented the album to them in an avant-premiere. I surprised Babu and Buna Ana, for her 90th birthday, by showing them the making of the film. Both were delighted. It was really a highlight in my life. Especially since they couldn’t believe that people appreciate their traditions, that they wanted to buy the album and that sales were donated to plant trees. 

In which other ways are you involved to help the local community?

During the pandemic, for my 40th birthday, I organized a lockdown party over zoom at my house called Music for Earth. Along with musicians from all over the world, I mixed from my living room to spread joy and have some fun. We also collected funds and sent food boxes to 51 elderly people for a month every week, to support the elderly in the Transylvania area.

What inspires you to be so dedicated to charitable activities?

Eight years ago, I woke up admiring a beautiful beach in Phuket, Thailand, from the balcony of a high-end hotel. It hit me that I was living in a bubble. The night before, I had played at a fancy wedding, and though I had put on a good show, I felt completely empty inside. That is when I decided to focus more of my time on charity work – since it brings me the greatest joy. My lifetime carbon footprint had also accumulated, and I started becoming more aware of the impact climate change has over our environment.

There was also the time when my son turned 16. I kept thinking about what to get him for his birthday. At that time, I was in the middle of deciding what to do with some money I’d received from selling a piece of inherited land. I asked my son for advice: “Should we invest in a fundraising campaign to plant trees, or go a different path?” To which he told me: “Mum, we must invest in the trees.” So we planted 15,000 trees for his birthday.

How many trees have you indirectly helped to plant so far?

I have also been involved with planting trees in the UK. To date, we have indirectly planted 150,000 trees in the UK and Romania, thanks to music.