The crowd surges forward against the barrier, cameraphones are held aloft, children are hoisted on to shoulders. The celebrities, the first European bison about to set their hooves in this remote Romanian valley in the southern Carpathian mountains for two centuries, wait in the shadows of a huge trailer.
The forest, already home to bears and packs of wolves, is the final destination for 17 of Europe’s largest land mammal, some of whom have been travelling hitched to lorries for five days from as far as Sweden. It will be their first time out of captivity.
The release of the animals into the wild is one of the biggest in Europe since reintroductions began in the 1950s, establishing wild populations in Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Belarus, Russia, Lithuania, and Kryygzstan. More will be reintroduced each year, with an aim of having 500 in the mountains eventually.
Bison bonasus was driven to extinction in the wild across Europe in 1927 after decades of decline from hunting and habitat loss. But it has become that rare endangered species: a conservation success story.
There are now thousands in the wild, all descended from the 54 individuals in captivity when the last wild one was killed in Poland’s Bialowieza forest.
Despite the increase in numbers, the European bison is still rarer than other high profile species, such as the black rhino, even with the reintroductions. There are over 5,000 European bison, with about 3,200 in the wild.
Frans Schepers, managing director of the Netherlands-based charity behind the release last weekend, Rewilding Europe, said: “It has a big symbolic value, bringing back animals. I’ve done that a lot in Africa, with rhinos and elephants, but in Europe it is very rare. Releasing animals, giving them space, is a sign of hope, it shows that if we choose, we can help wildlife come back.”