Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria, rising to over 2 000 metres, with deep river gorges and steep cliffs, cover close to 15 000 square kilometres, extending into Greece in the south. This is one of the most important breeding sites for the globally endangered Egyptian vultures in the region, and the only one for griffon vultures in the country.
The Rhodopes are one of eight pilot sites for a network with a new vision for nature conservation that’s called Rewilding Europe. As people increasingly move into urban areas, Rewilding Europe takes rural areas where the population is diminishing and makes them wild again, restoring self-sustaining ecosystems that are vital for biodiversity and, at the same time, developing new, nature-based economies. And it turns out they have a business case – proven by the fact the European Investment Bank just lent them EUR 6 million. The loan is backed by the Natural Capital Financing Facility established by the European Commission and the EIB.
“There is increasing recognition that public grants are not enough to cover the costs of conservation efforts. Fortunately, there’s a great business case for investing in nature,” says the EIB’s environmental and climate finance investment officer Jane Feehan. “Rewilding Europe has nature at its heart, but they’re building a strong business model too, and are now able to take on loan finance to expand their activities.”
Vultures and aurochs and horses, oh my
In Bulgaria, in the Rhodopes, this took the form of working with local entrepreneurs to boost small-scale nature based tourism by repairing wildlife photography hides, training local entrepreneurs and demonstrating the commercial value of wild nature. The ultimate objective is to finance the rewilding of the region, and stop poisoning, poaching and power-line electrocutions that reduced the number of griffon vultures to only 10 pairs at the lowest point.
Rewilding Europe introduced an anti-poisoning dog unit to spot hazards for vultures, is building artificial nests to attract black vultures to start new colonies, and started working with local electricity companies to insulate their power lines. And while the locals were using poison baits to keep the wolf population down, Rewilding Europe actually brought in fallow and red deer so that there would be more natural prey for wolves – a key selling point in attracting vultures, because the birds feed on what’s left of the carcass once the wolves finish eating.
So how do the locals react? “We are, of course, involving them in the new approach,” says Rewilding Europe’s head of rewilding, Wouter Helmer. “There are fewer and fewer shepherds in this area, and the ones remaining understand that if we bring in deer, we also distract the wolves from their sheep and their cattle, as it is always easier for wolves to go for the wild animals.”
The locals also understand that the rewilding efforts help diversify their income by appealing to tourists from the capital Sofia and outside the country. That means business for bed-and-breakfasts, in addition to livestock management.
“They understand a wolf alive is worth more to them than a dead one,” says Helmer. “So our work is starting them rethinking their relationship with nature. It will not be an overnight success, but we commit to being there for at least ten years, and offer them a whole toolkit.”