A 10-year vision

Making the Rhodope Mountains a much wilder place. For the benefit of nature and people.

By 2024, the Rhodope Mountains area, with its mosaic of open landscapes, oak and beech forests, grasslands and rivers, as well as rocky slopes and cliffs, has become one of the most exciting wild areas in South-Eastern Europe.

An area mostly regulated by natural ecological processes, in which the wildlife species thrive in their natural densities. This new, wilder dimension, in combination with some of the old cultural traditions and local products from here, has become the basis for creating new sources of income and pride for the people who live here, and for Bulgaria as a country. The experiences from the Rhodope Mountains are inspiring people in many areas, both nearby but also areas with similar natural settings, to also approach their mix of problems and opportunities, using rewilding as a tool.

The unbroken ecological integrity of the region has been secured. While large parts have become much wilder and the large core rewilding areas are connected through wildlife corridors, these areas are surrounded by small transition- and buffer areas, where people still use the landscape in different more or less traditional ways.

The Rhodope Mountains have become a connected nature and wilderness region, containing several really big wild areas, each with their full range of native species back in place. The main management principle practiced in all the core areas is based on allowing for the natural processes and letting nature to a high degree manage itself.

The Rhodope Mountains have attracted young people, for whom it now provides new opportunities for business, jobs and income based on these wild values, local products and culture. The negative spiral of land abandonment, loss of biodiversity and diminishing local culture has been turned into new prosperity, attracting and inspiring many visitors also from outside the region, thereby increasing the variety of Bulgaria’s total tourism offer and also being part of extending the country’s tourism season.

By 2024, the Rhodope Mountains rewilding area comprises 200,000 hectares of land, included in the Natura 2000 site Rodopi Iztochni. The priority areas of Byala Reka, Madzharovo, Studen Kladenets and Chernoochene are functioning as core areas of the much wider rewilding area. They function also as pilot sites for rewilding activities and contribute both to the conservation of key species and to ecotourism development.

There will be zonation between the core rewilding areas and the surrounding sustainable use areas. In the large core wildlife zones, wildlife watching tourism and experiencing this new wild landscape in its full glory will be one of the main uses. Long-term partnership agreements are signed for wildlife conservation and restoration with the hunting societies.

The Rhodopes rewilding area will be ecologically connected to the similar natural and wild areas like Dadia and Rodopi National Parks in Greece and Rila and Pirin National Parks in Bulgaria, through the Natura 2000 network and the protected areas in the Western Rhodope Mountains.

Natural processes
The grazing and browsing effect from increased herds and diversity of large wild herbivores is keeping the landscape more open and there is less bush overgrowth and consequently less risk for disastrous bush fires. This stimulates the return of endangered species like the souslik, the marbled polecat and the Imperial eagle.

A healthy wolf population manages the densities and distribution of the herbivores in a more natural way and creates better opportunities for healthy populations of black, griffon and Egyptian vultures.

The management plans of the large existing Natura 2000 have been worked on together with Rewilding Europe to include strong rewilding measures, letting natural processes govern the management to a much greater extent than before.

By 2024, a more supportive legal framework is in place that better allows for further tangible rewilding actions, like legally accepting the wild horse, the bison and the aurochs as wild native species, allowing for no-take and wildlife comeback areas, and allowing for non-fed wildlife populations.

The whole area has much stronger populations of its original native wildlife species, boosted by reintroductions and re-stockings when considered necessary. The main wildlife attractions are the black, griffon and Egyptian vultures, fallow deer, wild horse, European bison, red deer, wolf, bear, Balkan chamois and souslik, as well as a number of rare south European birds. The wolf is being seen as a normal and accepted inhabitant of the area. The European bison, the Balkan chamois, the black vulture and the bearded vulture have all been successfully reintroduced to the region and the bear has begun to come back.

Local economic development
By 2024 the increased wildlife numbers and the reintroduced native species are providing a basis for a unique and varied tourism offer, firmly built on these assets. The Rhodope Mountains has become one of the best places in Europe for watching raptors and large herbivores, at close distance. In addition to that, local businesses and regional products are benefiting from the rewilding activities and provide incentives for entrepreneurs to invest in the area, thereby contributing to the uniqueness and attractiveness of it.

All new major infrastructure projects (like windmills, power lines, or dam constructions) will be held away from the area, to preserve the wild integrity of the landscape and to secure its connectivity with other areas.