Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature - David Quammen (1996)
The Post-Communist Wolf
IT’S TWO HOURS AFTER SUNSET on this snow-clogged Romanian mountain, and in the headlight of a stalled snowmobile stand five worried people and two amused dogs. One of the dogs is a husky. Her name, Yukai, translates from a distant Indian language to mean “Northern Lights.” Her pale gray eyes glow coldly, like tiny winter moons. One of the worried people is me. My name translates from Norwegian to mean “cow man” or, less literally, “a cattle jockey who should have stayed in his paddock,” neither of which lends me any aura of masterly attunement to present circumstances. The temperature is falling.
Unlike placid Yukai, we five humans are poorly prepared for a night’s bivouac in the snow, having long since abandoned most of our gear in an ill-advised gambit to lighten our load and move faster. Three of us— myself, the photographer Gordon Wiltsie, and a German visitor, Uli Geertz—are on backcountry skis with skins, schlepping along steadily behind a biologist named Christoph Promberger and his biologist wife, Barbara Promberger-Fuerpass, who are driving the two snowmobiles. Christoph is a lanky, black-haired German whose almond-thin, lidded eyes make him appear faintly Mongolian—that is, like a young Mongolian basketball player with a wry smile. Though attached to the Munich Wildlife Society, he has worked here in the Carpathian Mountains since 1993, collaborating with a Romanian counterpart named Ovidiu Ionescu, of the Forestry Research and Management Institute, to create the Carpathian Large Carnivore Project. Barbara, a fair-haired Austrian, joined the project more recently and is now beginning a study of lynx. Both of them are hardy souls with considerable field experience in remote parts of the Yukon (where Christoph did a master’s degree on wolf biology and where later they honeymooned), so they know a thing or three about winter survival, backcountry travel, problem avoidance, snowmobile repair. But tonight’s conditions, reflecting an unusually severe series of January storms and an absence of other human traffic along this road, have caught them by surprise.
Gordon and I are surprised too: that Murphy’s Law, though clearly in force, seems unheard of in Romania.
At the outset Christoph was towing a cargo sled, but that had to be cast loose and left behind. Even without it, the Ski-Doos have been foundering in soft six-foot drifts, and much of our energy for the past few hours has gone into pushing these infernal machines, pulling them, kicking them, cursing them, nudging them ever higher toward a peak called Fata lui Ilie; coaxing them and ourselves, that is, ever deeper into trouble. The sensible decision, after we’d bogged at the first steep pitch, then bogged again and again, would have been to turn back at nightfall and retreat to the valley. Instead we went on, convincing ourselves recklessly that the going would get easier farther up. Ha. Somewhere ahead, maybe three miles, maybe five, is a cabin. We have one balky Petzel headlamp, a bit of food, matches, two pairs of snowshoes as well as the skis, but no tent and, since ditching even our packs back at the last steep switchback, no sleeping bags. The good news is that the forest is full of wolves.
“I believe the term is goat-fucked,” Gordon says suddenly, as though during his last long stretch of silence he’s been reading my mind. “A situation that’s so absurdly bad, it becomes sublime.” Gordon’s own situation is more sublime than the rest of ours, since he’s suffering from a gut-curdling intestinal flu as well as the generally shared ailments—cold hands, exhaustion, frustration, hunger, and embarrassment. “We could easily spend the night out here, without sleeping bags,” he adds.
On that point I’m inclined to disagree: We could do it, yes, but it wouldn’t be easy.
The purpose of our trip is to reach the Fata lui Ilie cabin and use that as a base for three or four days of wolf-trapping. It’s part of the program.
Since 1995, Christoph and his coworkers have collared thirteen wolves, of which five have been shot, two have dispersed beyond the study zone, and four others have fallen cryptically silent, probably when their transmitters failed. One of the missing animals is a female named Timish, the first Carpathian wolf on which Christoph ever laid his hands. Timish, the alpha bitch in a pack, was a savvy survivor, and she opened his eyes to the range of lupine resourcefulness in Romania. Originally trapped and collared in a remote valley near Brasov, a regional capital of some 300,000 people amid the mountains, Timish and her pack soon relocated themselves closer and began making nocturnal forays into the heart of the city. On Brasov’s southern fringe was a large meadow where they could hunt rabbits, and by skulking along a sewage channel, then crossing a street or two, they could find their way to a garbage dump, rich with such toothsome possibilities as slaughterhouse scraps, feral cats, and rats. In 1996, Timish denned in the area and produced ten pups. With the aid of a remote camera set fifty meters from the den, Christoph spent many hours watching her perform the intimate chores of motherhood. But times change and idylls fade. Timish disappeared, the fate of her pups is unknown, and in the enterprising ferment of post-Communist Romania, the rabbit-filled meadow is now occupied by a Shell station and a McDonald’s.
At the time of our visit, only two wolves are still transmitting, one of which is a male known as Tsiganu, recently collared in another little valley not far from Brasov. Christoph needs more radio-bearing (and therefore trackable) animals for the ongoing study. Hence this night mission to Fata lui Ilie.
The wolf population of the Carpathians is sizable, but the animals are difficult to trap—far more difficult than wolves of the Yukon or Minnesota, Christoph figures—probably because their long history of close but troubled relations with humans has left them warier than North American wolves. Romania is an old country, rich with natural blessings but much wrinkled by conflict and paradox, and history here is a first explanation for everything, including the ecology and behavior of Canis lupus. Go back two thousand years, before the imperial Romans put their stamp on the place, and you find the Dacia, a fearsome indigenous people who referred to their warriors as Daois, meaning “the young wolves.”
Just after World War II, wolves roamed the forests throughout Romania, even the lowland forests, with a total population of perhaps 4,000. They preyed on roe deer, red deer, and wild boar but were much loathed and dreaded for their depredations also against livestock, especially sheep. In the 1950s, the early Communist government, under a leader named Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, sponsored a campaign of hunting, trapping, poisoning, and killing pups at their dens, to reduce the wolf population and make the countryside safe for Marxist-Leninist lambs. That antiwolf pogrom worked well in the lowlands, which were in any case becoming more thoroughly devoted to agriculture and heavy industry. On the high slopes of the Carpathians, though, where lovely beech and oak forests were protected by a tradition of conscientious forestry, where fir and spruce grew to a timberline below tall limestone crags, and where dreams and memories of freedom survived among at least a few of the hardy rural people, wolves survived too.
The Carpathians also served as a refuge for brown bear and lynx. The bear population stands presently at about 5,400, a startling multitude of Ursus arctos considering that in all the contiguous western United States (where we call them grizzlies) there are fewer than 1,000. The wolf population, presently numbering somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 animals, represents a large fraction of all Canis lupussurviving between the Atlantic Ocean and Russia. Why has Romania, of all places, remained such a haven for large carnivores? The reasons involve accidents of geology, geography, ecology, politics, and the ironic circumstance that a certain Communist potentate, successor to Gheorghiu-Dej, came to fancy himself a great hunter. This of course was the pipsqueak dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who for decades ruled Romania as though he owned it.
Born in the village of Scornicesti and apprenticed to a Bucharest shoemaker at age eleven, Ceausescu made his way upward as a gofer to early Communist activists during their years of persecution by a fascist regime. He served time in prison, a good place for making criminal and political contacts. He was cunning: he was ambitious and efficacious, though never brilliant; he bided his time, sliding into this opening and then that one, eventually gaining ultimate control as general secretary of the Communist Party in 1965. He styled himself the Conducator, a lofty title that paired him with an earlier supreme leader from Romania’s past. He distanced himself from certain Soviet policies, such as the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and thereby made himself America’s favorite Communist autocrat, at least during the administrations of Nixon and Ford and Carter. His manner of domestic governance was merely Stalinism in a Romanian hat, but for a long time the U.S. didn’t notice.
Ceausescu’s dark little shadow cast itself across Romania for twenty-five years, with the help of his Securitate apparatus of secret police and informers, which included as many as 3 million people in a nation of just 23 million. “The Securitate maintained a collection of handwriting samples from sixty per cent of the population,” according to Robert Cullen, who covered the 1989 revolution for The New Yorker. “Anyone with a typewriter had to register it. Mail and telephones were routinely monitored.” Such institutional menace wasn’t uncommon in the Communist bloc, of course, but it may have weighed more heavily here, owing to a certain wary, fatalistic strain in the national spirit. Romania under Ceausescu doesn’t seem to have had the sort of robust underground network of dissidents that existed in the Soviet Union or, say, Poland or Czechoslovakia. There’s a nervous old Romanian proverb, counseling caution: Vorbesti de lup si lupul e la usa. Speak of the wolf, and he’s at your door.
Ceausescu’s industrial, economic, and social policies were as wrongheaded as they were eccentric. Though he was Stalinist in style, he had that self-important yearning for independence from Moscow, and so he pushed Romania to develop its own capacities in oil refining, mineral smelting, and heavy manufacturing. During the 1970s, his industrialization initiative sucked off a huge fraction of the country’s GNP and a big burden in foreign loans; then in the 1980s he became obsessed with paying off those loans and made the Romanian populace endure ferocious austerity in order to do it. He exported petroleum products and food while his own people suffered in underheated and underlit apartments without enough to eat. He instituted a “systematization” campaign, as he called it, which essentially meant bulldozing old neighborhoods and villages in order to force their inhabitants into high-rise urban housing projects, where he could better control their flow of vital resources. His systematization created a larger proletariat living amid ugly urban blight, and his industrialization resulted in some horrendous point-source pollution problems, such as the smelter at Zlatna and the gold-reprocessing plant at Baia Mare, which just recently let slip a vast, wet fart of toxic sludge from one of its containment ponds into the upper Danube drainage, poisoning fish downstream for miles. But for some reason Ceausescu did not become obsessed with exporting timber, and so the Carpathian highlands remained wild and sylvan while other parts of the country grew grim.
The Conducator himself lived a life of splendorous self-indulgence and paranoia, like a neurasthenic king. He had food-tasters to protect him from poisoning. He had germ obsessions like Howard Hughes. He trusted only his wife, Elena, who was his full partner in megalomania and his chief adviser on how to govern poorly. With her, he sealed himself away in palatial residences, letting the people see him mainly through stagy televised ceremonials. For bolstering his ego and political luster he depended also on occasional mass rallies, for which tens of thousands of workers and other citizens were mandatorily mustered to express—or anyway feign—adulation of the Conducator. The last of those, on December 22, 1989, went badly askew and led to his fall. All the other Communist leaders who got dumped during that dizzy time, from Gorbachev down, were content to go peacefully, but Nicolae Ceausescu required being shot. That speaks not just to the loathsome force of his personality, I suspect, but also to a truth about Romania generally: its edgy, recalcitrant uniqueness.
Ceausescu’s shadow still lingers in some places, including the snowed-over road that may or may not eventually carry us to Fata lui Ilie. The forest is thick. The spruce trees are large and heavily flocked with snow. While the Ski-Doos are mired still again, on another steep switchback below a ridge line, I wonder aloud whether this route was originally cut for hauling timber.
“No, this was a hunting road for Ceausescu,” Christoph tells me. “He’d fly in by helicopter. And his people would come in by four-wheel-drive to organize the hunt.” Among other fatuities, Ceausescu prided himself as a great killer of trophy-size bears. Although his name went into record books and his trophies can still be seen at a museum in the town of Posada, Ceausescu’s actual accomplishments were contemptible: squeezing off shots at animals that had been located, fattened, and baited for his convenience. The sad irony is that so long as he arrogated the country’s bear-hunting rights largely to himself and allowed his forestry bureaucrats to protect the habitat, the bear population flourished. Records show that it peaked, at about eight thousand animals, in 1989. The end of that year was when the ground shifted for everyone—carnivores, citizens, and Ceausescu. “Until December,” Robert Cullen noted, “the vast majority of the Romanian people feared the Securitate and submitted wearily to its control.” Then, on December 22, the people arose and Ceausescu, losing his nerve, tried to flee but was captured. On Christmas Day, before a firing squad, the great hunter got his.
Farther along, when we pass a spur road to Ceausescu’s helicopter pad, I feel tempted to ski up and inspect it. But by now Christoph and Barbara are far ahead on the snowmobiles, Gordon is with them, and I’m skiing through darkness with only Uli’s dim headlamp as a point of guidance. Ceausescu is dead, the bears are asleep, the new government is led by a center-right coalition of parliamentarians, the Carpathian forests are being privatized to their great peril, the currency is weak, the mafia is getting strong, wolves are what brought me up onto this mountain, and all idle contemplation of the pungent contingencies of recent Romanian history is best left, I realize, for a time when I’m not threatened by hypothermia.
The wolf known as Tsiganu was trapped on December 19, 1999, near a valley called Tsiganesti. The handling, collaring, and release were done by a Romanian technician named Marius Scurtu, a sturdy young man with an unassuming grin and a missing front tooth, from Ovidiu Ionescu’s wildlife unit at the forestry institute. Marius had blossomed into an important member of the carnivore project, absorbing well the field training in wolf capture that Christoph gave him and showing great appetite for the hard backcountry legwork. In recognition of his role, he was allowed to christen the new animal. Besides relating the wolf to that particular valley, the name he picked—Tsiganu—means “Gypsy.”
At the time of trapping, Tsiganu weighed ninety-five pounds. He was notable for the lankiness of his legs and, after careful measurement, the length of his canine teeth. Since collaring, he has rejoined a small pack of four or five animals, though whether he himself is the alpha male remains uncertain. He now broadcasts his locator beeps on a frequency of 148.6 megahertz, and several times each week either Marius or another project technician goes out with a map, a radio receiver, and a directional antenna to check on him. Tsiganu seldom lets himself be seen, but from his prints and other evidence in the snow, a good tracker can learn what he has been doing. In the past month he has killed at least three roe deer, two dogs, and two sheep. On a warmish day not long before our misadventure on the trail toward Fata lui Ilie, Gordon and I skied along with a tracker named Peter Suerth.
We followed Peter up a tight little canyon into the foothills above a village. It was slow travel, through wet heavy snow along the bank of a small stream, but within less than a mile we came to a kill. The rib cage and hide of a roe deer, partly covered by overnight snowfall, confirmed that Tsiganu and his pack hadn’t gone hungry. Continuing upward, we passed an old log barn within which, by their companionable gurgles and their neck bells, we could hear sheep, safely shut away behind a door. Moments later we met a man in country clothes, presumably the sheep-owner, trudging down a steep slope. Peter spoke a few words with him, then told us the gist of the exchange. Wolves, you want wolves? the man had said. Wolves we’ve got, around here. Lots of them.
We angled steeply up a slope, rising away from the creek bottom. A half-hour of climbing brought us each to a full sweat, and onto a ridge. Peter took another listen with the receiver, catching a strong signal that seemed to place Tsiganu within 300 yards. Which direction? Well, probably there, to the northwest. But the tempo of beeps also indicated that the animal was active, not resting, and therefore his position could change fast. We hustled northwest along the ridge line. When Peter listened again he got a very different bearing, this one suggesting that Tsiganu and his pack were below us, possibly far below, on the opposite slope of the creek valley we’d just left. Or maybe the earlier signal had been deceptive, because of echo effects from the terrain. Or maybe this one was the echo.
While Peter pondered those uncertainties, I noticed that we had skied our way up to the southeastern outskirts of a place I recognized—a snowbound hamlet of thatch-roofed cottages, conical haystacks, coppiced willow stumps defining an unplowed lane, and a few shapely farmhouses with gabled and turreted tin roofs, all hung like a saddle blanket across the steep sides of this foothill ridge. It was called Magura. It seemed a mirage of bucolic tranquillity from the late Middle Ages, but it was real. I had been here before.
Most recently, I had been here with a Romanian friend, Andrei Blumer, when he and Gordon and I skied up from the other side, on a day of bright sunshine and stabbing cold, and stopped to visit an elderly couple named Gheorghe and Aurica Surdu. The Surdus live in a trim little cottage they built fifty years ago to replace a five-hundred-year-old cottage on the same spot, in which Aurica had been born. Aurica is a pretty woman of seventy-some years, with a deeply lined face and a wide, jokey smile. We were greeted effusively by her, Gheorghe, and their middle-aged son, another Gheorghe but nicknamed Mosorel, who himself had boot-kicked up through the snow for a Saturday visit. Passing from deep snowbanks and icy air into a small narrow room with a low ceiling, a bare bulb, and a woodstove upon which simmered a pot of rose-hip tea, we commenced to be steam-cooked with hospitality. Aurica, wearing a head scarf and a thick-waled corduroy vest, spoke as little English as Gordon and I did Romanian, but she made herself understood, and her motherly eyes missed nothing. She stood by the stove and fussed cheerily while Andrei traded news with Mosorel, Gordon thawed his camera lenses, and I waited for my glasses to clear. Have some rose tea, you boys, get warm. Here, have some bread, have some cheese, don’t be so skinny. Okay, thanks, don’t mind if we do. The tea was deep-simmered and laced with honey. Have some smoked pork. And the sausage too, it’s good, here, I’ll cut you a bigger piece, don’t you like it? You do? Then don’t be shy, eat. Have some of the apple. We had set off without lunch, so we were pushovers. Mosorel, give them some tsuica, what are you waiting for? Mosorel, grinning broadly, poured us heated shots of his mother’s homemade apple-pear brandy, lightly enhanced with sugar and pepper. Tsuica is more than just the national moonshine; it’s a form of communion, and we communed.
Mosorel’s right hand was swaddled in a large white bandage. It testified to a saw accident several months earlier, Andrei explained, in which Mosorel had sliced off his pinkie and broken his fourth finger while cutting up an old chest for usable lumber. Mosorel is a carpenter, sometimes. Sometimes too he’s a tailor; his nickname means, roughly, “Mr. Thread.” Until the saw accident, he had also been pulling shifts at a factory down in the nearby town. Like his parents, who still raise pigs, cows, sheep, onions, corn, beets, potatoes, and more than enough apples and pears for tsuica, Mosorel is a versatile man of diverse outputs. The hand injury didn’t seem to damper his spirits, possibly because some joyous aptitude for survival runs like a dominant gene through the family, homozygous on both sides of his parentage. As the sweet liquor spread its heat in our bellies, the talk turned in that direction—to survival, and how its terms of demand had changed.
During the Communist era, Gheorghe and Aurica Surdu had been required to supply eight hundred liters of milk each year to the state. Andrei translated this fact, Aurica nodding forcefully: Yes, eight hundred. There were also quotas to be met in lambs, calves, and wool. Since the revolution, things had changed; no longer are Gheorghe and Aurica obliged to deliver up a large share of their farm produce, but market prices are so low that rather than selling their milk, they feed it to the pigs. So, I asked simple-mindedly, is life better or worse since the fall of Ceausescu? The talk rattled forward in Romanian for a few moments until Andrei paused, turned aside, and told me that Mosorel had just said something important.
“At least we’re not scared now,” he had said.
Just below the high village of Magura, at the mouth of the small river valley draining from Fata lui Ilie and other peaks, sits a peculiar little town called Zarnesti. Narrow streets, paved with packed snow at this time of year, run between old-style Transylvanian row houses tucked behind tall courtyard walls closed with big wooden gates. Horse-drawn sleighs jingle by, carrying passengers on the occasional Sunday outing. Heavy horsecarts with rubber tires haul sacks of corn, piles of fodder, and other freight. Young mothers pull toddlers and grocery bags on little metal-frame sleds. Kids ice-skate down the glassy snow-packed lanes. There are also a few automobiles—mostly beat-up Romanian Dacias—creeping between the snowbanks, and along the southern edge of town rises with sudden ugliness a cluster of five-story concrete apartment blocs from the Communist era, like a histogram charting the grim triumph of central planning. Beside the train tracks sits a large pulp mill that eats trees from the surrounding forests, digests them, and extrudes the result as paper and industrial cellulose. The mill site is cluttered with cranes, tanks, conveyors, piles of logs, a long eyeless building stuccoed in weary pink, and a few smokestacks. Beyond it is another neighborhood of concrete high-rises.
You can walk all afternoon among the winding lanes of Zarnesti, down to the main street, past the Orthodox church, past the pulp mill, looping back through the post office square, and not see a single neon sign. There are no restaurants and no hotels—none that I’ve managed to spot, anyway. Yet the population is 27,000. People live here and work here, but few visit. For decades Zarnesti was a closed town. The reason for its closure was security strictures related to the other industrial plant, over near the police station, the one commonly known as “the bicycle factory.” The bicycle factory was really a munitions factory, founded in 1938, when Romania was menaced by bellicose neighbors during the buildup toward World War II; later, in the Communist era, it had thrived and diversified. It produced artillery, mortars, rockets, treads for heavy equipment, boxcars, and—yes, as window dressing—a few Victoria bicycles. This is the factory where Mosorel worked until mutilating his hand. For decades it was Zarnesti’s leading industry. But the market for Romanian-made rockets and mortars has been wan since the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact, and the bicycle factory, which once employed 13,000 people, has laid off about 5,000 since 1989. At the pulp mill, likewise, the workforce has shrunk to a fraction of its former size. The town’s economy—at least the old economy, fed by geopolitical suppositions and mandates that flowed up from Bucharest—now resembles a comatose patient on a gurney, ready to be wheeled who knows where. Still, Zarnesti is filled with stalwart people, and a few of those people are energized with new ideas and new hopes.
One new idea is large-carnivore ecotourism. It began in 1995, when Christoph Promberger was contacted by a British group who had heard about the Carpathian Large Carnivore Project and wanted to bring paying visitors to this remote corner of Europe for a chance to see wolves and bears. They came—not actually to Zarnesti but to another small community nearby—and the money spent on lodging and food, though modest, was significant to the local economy. Two years later Christoph and his colleagues repeated the experiment as an independent venture. They welcomed eight different tour groups totaling some seventy people, who were accommodated in small pensiunes, vacation boardinghouses run by local families. Although the likelihood of actually glimpsing a wolf or a brown bear in the wild is always low, even for experienced trackers like Marius and Peter, some nature-loving travelers were quite satisfied, it seemed, to hike or ride horses through Carpathian forests in which a sighting, or a set of tracks, was always possible. Meanwhile the wolf fieldwork came to focus on the wooded foothills and flats of the Barsa Valley, which stretches thirty miles into the mountains above Zarnesti. And adjacent to the Barsa is a newly enlarged protected area called Piatra Craiului Natural Park, a massif of limestone crags, high forests, and alpine meadows harboring several endemic plant species. Piatra Craiului, now supported with a grant from the Global Environmental Facility of the World Bank, has its own great potential as a tourist destination but little such traffic so far. Christoph discussed the tourism opportunity with a couple of venturesome folks in the town. Large carnivores, he pointed out, might attract travelers who wouldn’t come just for edelweiss and primroses. One man he talked to was Gigi Popa.
Gigi Popa is a forty-six-year-old businessman whose trim mustache, balding crown, and gently solicitous manner conceal the soul of a risk-taker and a performer. Give him three shots of tsuica, a guitar, and an audience—he’ll smile shyly, then hold the floor for an evening. Give him a window of economic opportunity—he’ll climb through it. Gigi grew up in a small village near Zarnesti, the son of a sheetmetal worker. In the 1980s, he worked as a cash-register repairman for a large, inefficient government enterprise charged with servicing machines all over Romania. The machines in question were mediocre at best, and destined to be obsoletized by modern electronic versions. Gigi couldn’t divine all the coming upheavals, but he could see clearly enough that mechanical Romanian cash registers were not a wave to ride into the future.
He and his wife lived in a little house behind a high courtyard gate, a place that was charming and solid but had lately come under threat to be leveled for more concrete apartments, in accordance with President Ceausescu’s systematization campaign. As the campaign approached to within wrecking-ball distance, Gigi and his family could do nothing but watch and dread. Then, blessed surprise, Nicolae Ceausescu himself fell before Gigi’s house did.
“After the revolution, I change quickly my job and my direction,” Gigi says. He got out of cash-register repair and opened a small store in the back of the house.
He was ready for the next step, not knowing what the next step might be, when Christoph told him about English, Swiss, and German travelers who would be coming to Zarnesti, drawn by the wolves in the mountains but needing lodging in town. Gigi promptly remodeled his home and his identity again. He became a pensiune keeper, with four guest rooms ready the first summer and another four the following year. He now plays an important partnership role to the Carpathian Large Carnivore Project’s program of tourism. Gigi’s pensiune is where Gordon and I have been sleeping, for instance, when we’re not sublimely geschtuck in the mountains.
One morning I ask Gigi the same question I asked Mosorel: Has the new order made life better or worse? “The good thing of the revolution is everybody can do what he have dreams,” Gigi says. “Because everybody have dreams. And in Ceausescu time you can do no thing for your own. Must be on the same…same…”—he makes a glass-ceiling gesture—“…level. Everybody.” Whereas now, he says, a person with initiative, wit, a few good ideas, and a willingness to gamble on them can raise himself and his family above the dreary old limit. The bad thing, he says, is that free-market entrepreneurship involves far more personal stress than a government job in cash-register maintenance.
One day in the summer of 1999, Christoph and Barbara noticed a sizable construction job under way in the Barsa Valley, some miles upstream from Zarnesti. The foundation was being laid for a hundred-room hotel.
This was not long after Christoph had begun discussions with Gigi Popa and a few other local businessmen, as well as the town mayor, about not just tourism but a vision of sustainable ecotourism for Zarnesti. The crucial premise of that vision was to let the Barsa Valley remain undeveloped—and thereby to preserve an intact riparian ecosystem, as well as habitat for large carnivores, with their attractive appeal to foreign visitors—while the infrastructure to support those visitors would be built as small-scale operations down in the town. If the valley itself was consumed by suburban sprawl and recreational development, Christoph had explained, then the carnivore habitat would be badly fragmented, if not destroyed, and the Large Carnivore Project would be forced to move, taking not just its research focus but also its ecotourism activities elsewhere. But if the Barsa habitat was protected, then the project could remain, channeling visitors to whatever small pensiunes might be available in Zarnesti. Everyone had seemed to agree that this was the sensible approach. Yet now the hotel construction revealed that someone else—an investor from the city of Brasov, fifty miles away—intended to exploit the proximity of Piatra Craiului Natural Park on an ambitious scale. And belatedly it was revealed that the town council had approved open development zoning for the entire valley. “So this was disaster,” Christoph remembers thinking. “Absolute disaster.”
Christoph himself had to leave the country just then, for a short visit back in Germany. Fortunately, Andrei Blumer had by that time joined the project as a specialist in rural development. Together they shaped their best argument for valley protection plus in-town entrepreneurship, so that Andrei could present that argument to the mayor.
Zarnesti’s mayor is a mid-fortyish man named Gheorghe Lupu, formerly an engineer in the bicycle factory before Romanian bicycles lost their tactical military appeal. Bright and unpretentious, his dark hair beginning to go gray, Mr. Lupu wears a black leather jacket at work, keeps his office door open to drop-by callers, and describes himself jokingly as a “cowboy mayor.” About the problems of Zarnesti, though, he’s serious. Tax revenues yield only 10 percent of what they did before the revolution; the pulp mill has laid off two thousand people, the bicycle factory even more; the sewage system and the gas supply network need work; the roads too cry out for repair. There was little basis to assume that this harried man would muster much sympathy for protecting wolf habitat, notwithstanding the fact that his own name, Lupu, translates as “wolf.” But would he be able at least to grasp the connection between large carnivores, open landscape, and tourism? It was a tense juncture for Christoph, having to absent himself while the whole Barsa Valley stood in jeopardy.
Just before leaving for Germany, he received a terse electronic message on his mobile phone. It was from Andrei, saying: “Lupu stopped everything.” The mayor had moved to reverse the council’s decision. Let the tourists eat and sleep in Zarnesti, he agreed, and pay their visits to the wild landscape as day-trippers. He had embraced the idea of zoning protection for the valley.
But to announce a policy of protection is one thing; real safety against the forces of change is another. Barbara and I get a noisy reminder of that difference during an excursion to set traps for her lynx study.
We’re twenty-some miles above Zarnesti, where the Barsa road narrows to a single snowmobile trail. Barbara has driven her Ski-Doo, loaded with custom-made leg-hold traps and other gear, me riding my skis at the end of a tow rope behind. In the fresh snow at trailside we’ve seen multiple sets of lynx prints as well as varied signs of other animals—deep tracks from several red deer that came wallowing down off a slope, fox tracks, even one set from a restless bear that has interrupted its hibernation for a stroll. Late in the afternoon, just as Barbara finishes camouflaging her last trap, we hear the yowl of another snowmobile ascending the valley. At first I assume that it must be Christoph’s. But as the machine throttles back, I see it’s a large recreational Polaris driven by a middle-aged stranger in a fur hat, with a woman on the seat behind him. Then I notice that Barbara has stiffened.
She exchanges a few sentences in Romanian with the stranger. He seems rather jovial; Barbara speaks curtly. The man swings his snowmobile around us and goes ripping on up the valley. When he’s beyond earshot, which is instantly, Barbara explains what just transpired.
Claims he’s from Brasov, she says. But he is not Romanian, to judge from his accent. Probably a wealthy Italian with a second home. When he heard what Barbara was doing—setting traps to catch lynx—he thought she meant trapping for pelts, and he acted snooty; when she added that it’s for a radio-tracking study, he graced her with his patronizing and ignorant approval. Oh, you’re doing wildlife research—okay. His ladyfriend, on the other hand, was worried. “She asked if it would be dangerous to continue, with all the lynx in here. Ya, it would,” Barbara says caustically. “Keep out.” The upper valley is closed to joy-riding traffic and those two have no business being here, Barbara explains. Unlimited motorized access, along with development sprawl and other symptoms of the new liberty and affluence, are now a damn sight more threatening to the lynx population—and the wolves, and the bears—than fur-trapping, judicious timbering, or even the crude, spoliatory hunting once practiced by Nicolae Ceausescu, with all his minions and helicopter pads.
Barbara has never before seen a recreational snowmobile in Zarnesti, let alone up here. “Aaagh,” she says, as the roar of the Polaris fades above us. “It all starts with one. There are so many rich guys in Brasov now.”
On the following day, the last Sunday of January, the pattern of nightly snowfalls and frigid temperatures breaks to a thaw. Down in Zarnesti, the lovely deep drifts on roof eaves begin to sag weightily. By noontime the main streets are full of slush. The polished white lanes near Gigi Popa’s pensiune, where the horse sleighs and skating children lent such a flavor of timeless grace, have turned to mush. Cars flounder like mud-bound elephants. From being cold, hard, and gorgeous, the weather has turned warm and ugly. We have survived our reckless excursion to Fata lui Ilie, descended from that mountain, and now the valley is showing us a very different sort of face.
Gordon departs for America, and Uli Geertz heads home to Hamburg. I stay behind. In early afternoon I set off in my rental car through a sleety drizzle toward the city of Brasov. The rain makes everything seem grimier and more joyless, especially the half-idle pulp mill at the edge of town. Just beyond that, I find myself stopped at a railroad crossing. In my fog of rumination, thinking about the death of the old regime and the rise of the new one, about carnivore research and ecotourism, about all the odds stacked against the possibility that big predators will survive on our planet much longer, I’m slow to recognize that the vehicle in front of me is Christoph’s. He climbs out and comes walking back.
“Marius just called,” Christoph says. “Tsiganu’s been shot. He may be dead.”
The details are still blurry, but it seems that a couple of boar hunters let fly at the wolf for no particular reason except his wolf-hood. Probably they were poaching, since no gamekeeper was present, as mandated for a legitimate boar hunt. Tsiganu is wounded, hard to say how badly, but still on his feet at last report. Marius heard the shots. He came upon the hunters a few moments later. Marius is still out there, Christoph tells me, following a trail of radio beeps and blood spoor through the wet snow. Before long he will either find Tsiganu’s fresh carcass or else run out of daylight without knowing quite what’s what.
Having told me this much, Christoph jumps back in his car and the train barrier lifts.
I do my business in Brasov, distractedly, and return to Zarnesti. A day passes. Still there’s no definite news of Tsiganu. On the morning of the second day, again a warm one, I set out tracking with Marius and two project assistants.
We park the Dacia truck on a roadside above a village and begin hoofing along a farm lane into the foothills. At first we slog through slush and mud, then up into knee-deep snow, then still higher into a zone where the crust has barely softened. We follow a snowed-over lane on a climbing traverse between meadows, along wooded gullies, beyond the last of the farmhouses, the last of the barking dogs, past two men hauling logs with a pair of oxen. Marius moves briskly. He’s a short, solid fellow with good wind and a long stride. He cares about this animal—both about Canis lupus as a denizen of the Romanian mountains, that is, and about Tsiganu as an individual. But Marius is a home-bred Romanian forestry worker, not a foreign-trained biologist, and his attitude is complexly grounded in local realities.
“Last year the wolf was killing for me two sheep,” he says as we walk. “Because the shepherd was drunk. Was like an invitation to eat.” The shepherd was his employee, helping Marius raise a few animals on the side. Some farmers moan about such losses, but what do they expect? Marius wonders. That the wolf, which has lived as a predator in these mountains for thousands of years, should now transform itself into a vegetarian? As for hunters who would offhandedly kill a wolf for its fur, he can’t comprehend them. “Also I am a hunter,” he says. He shoots ducks, pheasants, wild boar, and in self-defense he wouldn’t hesitate to kill a bear. But a wolf, no, never. It’s much nicer simply to go out with his dogs, hike in the forest, and know that in this place the ancient animals are still present.
Two miles in, we pick up a signal from Tsiganu’s collar. The bearing is south-southwest, toward a steep wooded valley that descends from a castle-shaped rock formation among the peaks above. Farther along, we get another signal on roughly the same line, and now the tempo of beeps indicates that Tsiganu is alive—at least barely alive, because he’s moving. Here we split into two groups, for a better chance of cutting his trail. Marius and I continue the traverse until we cross a single set of wolf tracks, then back-follow them up a slope. The tracks are deep, softened in outline by at least one afternoon’s melting, and show no sign of blood. Yesterday? Or earlier, before the shooting? They might be Tsiganu’s or not. If his, is the stride normal? Has his wound already clotted? Or is he lying near death with a slug lodged against his backbone, or in his lung, or in his jaw, while his packmates have gone on without him? Are these in fact his tracks, or some other wolf’s? No way of knowing.
So we hike again toward the radio signal, post-holing our way through knee-deep crust. We round a bend that brings us face-on to the valley below the castle-shaped peak. Here the radio signal gets stronger. We stare upward, scanning for movement. We see none.
Marius disconnects the directional antenna from the receiver. He listens again, using the antenna cable’s nub like a stethoscope, trying to fine-focus the bearing. Again a strong signal. So we’re close now. Maybe one hundred meters, Marius says. He tips back his head and offers a loud wolfish howl, a rather good imitation of a pack’s contact call. We listen for response. There’s a distant, dim echo of his voice coming off the mountain, followed by silence. We wait. Nothing. We turn away. I begin to fumble with my binoculars.
Then from up in the beeches comes a new sound. It’s Tsiganu, the Gypsy carnivore, the post-Communist wolf, howling back.