Interest paid in wild horses

A new solution for biodiversity revives ancient animals

Prize-winning beekeeper Sanjin Zarkovic at his bee farm in Melnice, Croatia, part of a Rewilding Europe project

The Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria rise to over 2,000 metres, with deep river gorges and steep cliffs covering close to 15,000 square km. They are one of the most important breeding sites for the globally endangered Egyptian vultures, 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 locations, 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.

It turns out they have a business case that the EIB is backing with EUR 6 million, supported by the Natural Capital Financing Facility, which was established by the EIB and the European Commission. “There is increasing recognition that public grants are not enough to cover the costs of conservation efforts,” says EIB 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.”

Rewilding “helps them rethink their relationship with nature.”

In the Bulgarian Rhodopes, this took the form of working with local entrepreneurs to boost small-scale nature 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 the poisoning, poaching, and power-line electrocutions that had reduced the number of griffon vultures to only ten pairs.

Rewilding Europe introduced an anti-poisoning dog unit to spot hazards for vultures. It is building artificial nests to attract black vultures to start new colonies, and it works with local electricity companies to insulate their power lines. While the locals were using poison baits to keep the wolf population down, Rewilding Europe brought in fallow and red deer, so that there would be more natural prey for wolves. That’s key to 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. 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 helps them rethink their relationship with nature.”

Bringing back an ancient species that went extinct

The tourism opportunities are not limited to photography hides in the Rhodopes. In fact, Rewilding Europe has launched European Safari Company. Compared to the African beasts usually associated with safaris, what could be so exciting about European fauna? What about aurochs? These are the big-horned wild ancestors of domestic cattle, up to 1.80 metres tall and weighing up to more than a ton, which are depicted on cave paintings. In Greek mythology, Zeus took the form of an aurochs bull to seduce and kidnap the beautiful princess Europa, thus founding Europe.

The aurochs developed during what is called the Pleistocene and went extinct around 400 years ago, but their genes are still alive and well in some ancient cattle breeds. Part of Rewilding Europe’s job is using these ancient cattle to breed the Tauros, a species of aurochs-type wild cattle that’s able to survive on its own. What makes that so important? “Biodiversity requires a diversity of landscapes,” says Helmer. “Not only forests, but also more open areas. Now, for the first time in history we have come to a stage where in many places there is no grazing anymore, so the diversity of natural grasslands with their flowers, birds and butterflies is no longer maintained by its natural architects.”

Originally, the aurochs was one of the key species to take care of that. Along with them, and especially for the last millennia, this task has partly been accomplished with the help of farmers and their livestock, which at least in its traditional grass-grazing mode, is quickly coming to an end. With fewer rural people wanting to work farms, there are large areas where natural grazers like the aurochs are extinct and domestic cattle numbers are way down too. “We decided to try to bring back the original grazers,” Helmer says.

He explains that 99% of the genes of the original grazers are still in the genes of domesticated breeds today, so the Tauros Programme has been using various primitive breeds to create a more resilient cow that could fend for itself. There are currently several hundred animals bred, and early results of introducing them to the wild are showing promise.

Wild horses released in the Rhodopes, as well as the new aurochs-like tauroses and the European bison are all part of another innovation that Rewilding Europe’s brought about: the European Wildlife Bank. It is almost like a real bank, Helmer says. Landowners can borrow primitive horses to graze on their territory, and in five years they give back half of their herd. As the herd typically grows by around 25% annually, the bank gets back a higher number of horses than it loaned, and the landowner keeps an equal number. “You can consider it a very nice interest rate,” Helmer says.

If the landowner shows that they have increased the grazing area available for the wild horses, they can keep the additional horses for another five years.