So it has been a while since my last post but I do have a valid excuse… I was busy working at Large Carnivore Education Centre in Bulgaria. So now with a warm cup of tea, I can tell you what I got up to!
During my first year of University I spent some time volunteering with the UK Wolf Conservation Trust and it really confirmed for me that I want a career in large carnivore conservation. I was lucky enough to receive some funding from my University as well as the trust itself to go to Bulgaria as part of a student exchange programme. The Education centre is located in Vlahi, a remote village in the Pirin Mountains with a population of about 20 people. This remoteness might put a lot of people off but I was excited at the prospect of escaping reality for a little while. So armed with my Bulgarian phrasebook and outdoor gear I jetted off to the mountains.
I was privileged to be working with Elena Tsingarksa, a well-respected biologist of the Balkani Wildlife Society and within just a few minutes of speaking with her I knew this placement was going to be an incredible experience. Vlahi was a long drive away, but I had the company of her two sons, a puppy, 20 bearded dragons and a hamster. Needless to say the car was quite full! As we reached our destination the nerves started kicking in, but as I was introduced to the rest of Elena’s family I was quickly made to feel at home. Being greeted by about 20 Karakachan puppies also proved to be quite handy when dealing with nerves as I’m sure you can imagine. Before arriving I was aware of this breed but underestimated how large they are. This coupled with their guarding instinct was intimidating at first but once introduced I saw how loyal and gentle they were, particularly with the children on the farm. The Karakachan dog is a very ancient breed of livestock guarding dog and due to its perfect working qualities, is widely used by shepherds in Bulgaria. These dogs are vital in reducing the conflict between people and large carnivores but became a disappearing breed. However, as part of the Karakachan breeds conservation project, Elena’s husband has ensured the survival of this breed. I spent a lot of time with these dogs, attempting to train the puppies and walking the adults to give them some ‘time off’ from guarding.
After settling in it was straight to work. Elena owns a Brown Bear (Medo), which was rescued from the circus and two Wolves (Vucho and Bayto), which were obtained from a local zoo. Each morning the animals were fed and this instantly became my favourite task of the day. Medo enjoyed lots of fruit and fish and I’m pretty sure we reached the ‘best friends’ stage as he soon became my loyal companion when I was completing general maintenance duties (or it could of just been purely based on my bribery of an endless supply of Blackberries). Vucho and Bayto were of course fed meat, but not every day as this more accurately mimics their eating pattern in the wild. They both demonstrated how powerful they are, crunching bones and tearing meat with ease. Both are socialised meaning that they can be handled (and even taken for a walk!). Once accepted, I was allowed to touch Vucho who enjoyed the attention much to Baytos disgust.
I also had the role of caring for wild Karakachan horses, which are also a struggling breed due to the government taking away livestock from private owners, resulting in many being killed and exported for meat. However, they are an incredibly strong breed and are vital in transporting supplies to shepherds in the mountains. Each day I spent time with Petqua, getting her used to and accepting human contact. This was an extremely rewarding experience and towards the end of my stay she could be handled with ease and often craved the attention herself.
I gained a wealth of knowledge about wolf conservation in Europe and it was an honour to hear all about Elena’s past and current research, as well as the interesting and amusing tales that have got her where she is today. I was keen to gain some new field work skills and of course Elena was more than happy to help. We went out radio tracking to locate her herd of wild horses and no words can describe how ecstatic I am to finally have this skill! Other days were spent hiking in the mountains looking for signs such as scats and tracks. Once found, we recorded their location, took photos and any scats were collected. Scats are vital in determining wolf diet and much of my time was spent processing and analysing these. Hair was extracted from each scat and the medulla closely examined under a microscope in order to determine the species. We also spent some time in known home ranges of wild wolf packs, setting up camera traps and baiting them with blood to attract the larger carnivores. I was later given the task of organising two years’ worth of camera trap footage, which gives us an insight into species activity and will later be used to contribute towards a wolf management plan.
The education centre is closely linked with a nature school in the village where I met some other students from Hungary, Serbia and Greece. I planned a three day hike with these students to explore the Pirin Mountains (and to look out for wolf signs of course). This was one of the highlights of my trip. The hike was incredibly challenging but the surrounding views and good company made it all worthwhile and we also gained an insight into the lifestyle of a shepherd in the mountains. With these students I also went on to explore nearby towns and also had an interesting day hitchhiking, where we had a slightly alarming experience of whether we would return home but, thankfully, we returned safe and sound.
I was pleasantly surprised by how friendly and approachable everybody I met was. I have never felt more at home whilst on a work placement and was sad to leave. The placement was very challenging overall, particularly during times where water was scarce, but this is the type of work I enjoy. I have an incredible amount of respect for Elena and her family as they have worked extremely hard to get where they are now and continue to do so, particularly when faced with the many challenges that come their way (particularly those which are political). I have gained more than I thought possible from this placement and feel that I have grown as a person. I am lucky to have been given the opportunity to return in the future, to work with Elena or recommended colleagues and will certainly make the most of this. This experience has provided me with the first step into the world of carnivore conservation.
Here are some more photos which I hope you enjoy!