Devastated by the destruction they witnessed during a forest hike in 2007, this Austrian couple are taking on the loggers to try and save Europe’s last great forest wilderness.
The vanishing forest
Christoph and Barbara Promberger were hiking through the virgin forest one summer morning in 2007. The sun was shining and birds were singing high in the trees. Occasionally the undergrowth rustled with the movement of unseen animals.
They were deep in Romania’s Piatra Craiului National Park, part of the Carpathian Mountains, a range that forms a 932-mile-long arc that stretches through seven countries. It’s home to some of Europe’s rarest large mammals: the wolf, the lynx and the brown bear, as well as many other species.
The Carpathians hold Europe’s largest remaining areas of virgin forest outside of Russia, yet all was not well in this vast haven of biodiversity.
“I felt sick to my stomach that someone could do this to such a beautiful place”
Walking with the couple, the park’s director, Horatiu Hanganu, somberly described the destruction taking place around them. Vast tracts of woodland, unchanged for thousands of years, were vanishing, eaten up by the biting teeth of power saws as unauthorised and illegal logging cut swathes through the forest.
And then, on the other side of the mountain, they came across a scene of carnage. Illegal loggers had ripped through the forest, destroying trees and flora along with the nutritious soil. Few birds were singing because there were no trees for them to nest in; there were no animals because the undergrowth protecting them had been torn away, leaving a scarred, broken landscape.
“I felt sick to my stomach that someone could do this to such a beautiful place,” says German-born Christoph, 50. “It broke my heart,” adds his Austrian wife Barbara, 41. “If you care for nature and for the conservation of our environment, you cannot tolerate such scenes.”
But that day in the forest proved to be a life-changing moment for the couple, propelling them on a mission to save this mountain wilderness for future generations.
An exploited community
Christoph and Barbara had first come to Romania in 1993, as biologists on a project to study the large carnivores that thrive in the Carpathians. They’d married five years later in Austria after falling in love during their nocturnal charting of the region’s mammals.
The Prombergers’ study of the region’s carnivores ended in 2003, but they were in no mood to return home. “We loved Romania so much that we wanted to stay on,” says Christoph. So they founded Equus Silvania, an equestrian centre and guesthouse 15 miles from the national park they’d grown to love.
“We thought of a place that would incorporate Barbara’s love of horse riding with the possibility for watching wildlife, together with a self-sustaining farm. It’s an equestrian centre, but is so much more than just that.”
Here, a three-hour drive north of Bucharest, they brought up two daughters while also tending to 35 horses. They kept pigs, chicken, geese and ducks, and grew a large variety of fruits and vegetables.
“If you care for nature and for the conservation of our environment, you cannot tolerate such scenes”
But the lack of management of the surrounding countryside was an ever-present concern to them.
In 2004 the Romanian authorities began to hand back land seized by the state to the families who once owned it. In a poor region, it was an invitation for locals to give their land over to the men with the chainsaws. The loggers paid well for the spruce, fir and beech wood, which ends up in sawmills for the production of chipboard, laminate, flooring, furniture and pellets for stoves.
“Most of the local owners had little economic empathy for the land and were willing to sell it, or its resources, to the highest bidder,” says Christoph. For the forests, and the animals living in them, the change was catastrophic.
Christoph and Barbara felt helpless, but then came a stroke of luck. In 2007, a guest called Hedi Wyss visited their retreat. They talked with Hedi about the destruction to the forest and their heartfelt desire to halt further devastation.
“Hedi had already founded her own conservation organisation and when we discussed what we wanted to do—save the national park on our doorstep—she was enthusiastic.”
“Hedi told me, ‘My brother is the man to stop this!’” says Christoph.
Making a plan
Hedi wasn’t exaggerating. Her brother just happens to be a Swiss biotechnics multi-billionaire. The second richest man in Switzerland, 79-year-old Hansjoerg Wyss is listed by Forbes magazine as having a fortune of more than £4.5bn.
Hedi arranged a meeting. Hansjoerg visited Equus Silvania and the four got to work.
“Our plan revolved around saving the Piatra Craiului National Park, which was being ravaged,” says Christoph. “But Hansjoerg was already dreaming of bigger things.
“He said he’d help on two conditions. The first was that our original plan for the park on our doorstep was too small. He wanted it ultimately to encompass much more land.”
Hansjoerg’s second condition was that he didn’t want to be the sole benefactor. “We had to attract more people committed to this idea,” says Christoph. “He felt that such a big project should not rest on the shoulders of one person.
“We have had some pretty scary moments"
“We thought about it and decided we’d go for it!” Just before Christmas 2009, Foundation Conservation Carpathia was born.
The quest was daunting. Facing them were gangster-like loggers, indifferent local police and corrupt bureaucrats who would rather take kickbacks than take on the criminals.
“We have had some pretty scary moments,” says Christoph. “We’ve had car tyres slashed, and one of the forest rangers had his life threatened by a man who illegally grazed his cattle on land that was off limits. It’s a struggle to change the perceptions of people to their environment.”
Barbara and Christoph networked tirelessly, tapping into all of their conservation friends and contacts.
“One contact led to another, and another, and another, and we found that people were willing to help us in our vision,” says Christoph. Help came from far and wide—one significant donor was a Danish philanthropist based in Hong Kong. They’ve never looked back.
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