The Carpathian mountains are a haven for large carnivores. Former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu knew it, but he preferred to shoot them. Now Romanians are realising the benefits of eco-tourism
It was mainly the slogan "Wolves and Bears in Transylvania" that lured us to the Carpathian mountains. A certain extra frisson derived from the fact that this was once Count Dracula's territory, and a third attraction was a mysterious rumour that the project we were due to visit in Romania was in some way connected to the Scottish Highlands. Still, the prospect which really sharpened the mind was that of hiking amid major carnivores.

Dracula proved a washout. Bran Castle, alleged to have been his residence, turned out to be over-hyped, over-restored, and about as spooky as a heap of blancmange. But the mountains! And the forests! The landscape was overwhelming.

A last-minute phone call warned us that snow had fallen early, so we took the right clothes. Our base was a comfortable guest-house in Zarnesti, a town 120 miles north of Bucharest, and the particular jewel in our crown was Piatra Craiului, a mountain range that towers immediately beyond the suburbs.

For five or six hours every day, we climbed its ridges and marvelled at the precipitous steepness of its flanks. The deciduous forests that cloak the lower slopes were turning from their summer greens into cascades of russet and gold; above them, pine and spruce on slopes rising to 5,000ft or more and, above them again, bristled a tremendous, dragon's-back ridge of limestone cliffs, and pinnacles and summits capped with snow.

Here, in 1995, a young specialist from the Munich Wildlife Society, Christoph Promberger, set up the Carpathian Large Carnivore Project, in order to discover more about the brown bear, wolf and lynx, and to demonstrate that the animals are no threat to the people who live among them. For the past four years, together with his wife, Barbara, and a small team of helpers, Promberger has devoted every waking moment to the task of capturing carnivores and fitting them with small radio transmitters, which allow the team to track their movements and plot their territories.

Promberger points out that the Carpathians, though still splendidly wild, are not technically a wilderness area. They have been inhabited by humans for as long as anyone can measure and, even today, some 5,000 people live in and around the mountains, co-existing happily with an estimated 1,000 lynx, 3,000 wolves and 4,000 bears - the largest reservoir of such animals in Europe, outside of Russia.

Farming in the area is still primitive: this is one of the last places in which shepherds maintain the ancient routine of taking their flocks up to alpine pastures in the summer months. On the heights, they milk the sheep three times a day to make cheese, and their only defences against wolves are packs of savage dogs, white and woolly, which sleep out around the pens at night.

Promberger has also, however, started to bring in groups of tourists, partly to finance his work, and partly to show local people that these carnivores can produce direct financial benefits for their community, and are therefore worth preserving. The money is sorely needed: the Romanian economy is still in ruins, shattered by 40 years of communism, and in particular, by the megalomaniac extravagance of hardman Nicolae Ceausescu and his dynasty. Ceausescu and his wife Elena were summarily tried and shot on Christmas Day 1989 after a brief but bloody popular uprising, but still, almost 10 years later, the name evokes condemnation and loathing.

You start to realise how bad things are when you see women in the fields pulling up individual sugar beet plants by hand, one at a time. Zarnesti is a dump. It was condemned to oblivion because of the nearby armaments factory - which meant that for years the region was closed to tourists - and which today has laid off three-quarters of its workforce.

In a place so starved of income, eco-tourists are a godsend, and Gigi Popa, our genial landlord, is one person who has latched on to the carnivore programme, using money from tourist groups to develop his house into an excellent pension.

Paradoxically, however, one of the late president's obsessions was of huge benefit to wildlife. Ceausescu was a fanatical hunter. He competed with other communist leaders such as Tito in Yugoslavia and Todor Zhivkov of Bulgaria, to secure the biggest trophies.

When Ceausescu realised that Romanian bears were second to none, he ordered extensive measures for their protection. Heavy penalties were imposed for poaching; feeding points were established all over the mountains and cubs were collected and raised artificially to stock new areas. Although Ceausescu himself continued to blaze away, the number of bears actually soared from 1,000 to 8,000 - too many for the environment.

Day after day, as we walked, we saw the huge, wide prints of bears, and sometimes their scats, or droppings, which are brown with beechnuts. One bear can put away 90lb of food (or 20,000 calories' worth) at a single meal as it piles on fat for the winter. We also found prints of wolves, deer and foxes - but never did we see the animals themselves, due to the vastness of their terrain.

The only wolves we came across were two tame ones, kept in an enclosure for research purposes; the only bears, a pair of teenaged cubs given to a local man by gypsies. Excitement ran high when we spotted them gambolling along a hillside one evening, but then, as they came down to a fence by the road, we realised that both were wearing bells round their necks.

Christoph Promberger now has ambitious plans for creating a carnivore centre, in which bears, wolves and lynx would be on show in large enclosures, along with their main prey species: red and roe deer. This would ensure that visitors at least set eyes on the animals they had come to seek; and a hi-tech information centre would give them all the necessary background.

In the meantime, tourists might be better advised to visit Brasov on their way to Piatra Craiului. In this city, a radio-collared wolf was filmed at night coming into the outskirts to visit garbage dumps, paying no attention to the human inhabitants. It emerged that her behaviour changed according to her surroundings. In the forest, she was shy and elusive, but in town, she showed extraordinary sophistication, glancing right and left before crossing the main highway and trotting along pavements as if she owned them.

For more information about tours to Piatra Craiului, contact the Romania Travel Centre at 39 Mount Pleasant, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN1 1PN (01892 516901)

The Traveller's Guide

HOLIDAY HINTS AND TIPS FOR TRAVELLERS

Getting there: British Airways (0345 222111) flies non-stop from Gatwick to Bucharest eight times a week, with discounted tickets available through the Romania Travel Centre (01892 516901) for pounds 233 return; flights from Heathrow on the Romanian airline Tarom are a couple of pounds more.

Lucy Gillmore paid pounds 215 for a return flight on Tarom from London Heathrow to Otopeni in Bucharest and pounds 50 for an internal flight to Suceava, leaving from Baneasa airport. To reach north-west Transylvania, it may be easier to approach from Budapest in Hungary. Hamilton Travel (0171-344 3333) has discounted deals such as a Heathrow-Budapest fare of pounds 169 on British Midland.

The Romania Travel Centre can also organise car rental and accommodation. If you prefer to arrange things locally, Lucy Gillmore suggests you speak to Teddy, at Bucovina Estur at Str. Stefan Cel Mare 24, Suceava 5800, Romania (00 40 30 22 32 59). A guide costs US$15 (pounds 9) per day ($20 if you're a group) and hiring a car and driver costs $60 per day (pounds 36), including fuel, for a maximum of 220km.

Accommodation: A double room at the Casa Lucretia starts at $40 (pounds 24) per night.

Red tape: Visas are no longer required by holders of British passport . For motorists, an international driver permit is strongly recommended.

More information: Romanian Tourist Office, 83a Marylebone High Street, London W1M 3DE; 0171-224 3692.

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