A project to "rewild" Europe, brings a safari-style camp to Portugal Hikers explore a trail in Ribeira de Piscos, Côa Valley, Western Iberia, Portugal. (Juan Carlos Muñoz/Rewilding Europe)
A project to "rewild" Europe, brings a safari-style camp to Portugal
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Are you familiar with modern African safari camps? They have wooden platforms with the skeletal outline of a gabled roof, white canvas ceilings and walls. Mosquito netting, simple, wooden furniture and spacious views of wild landscapes are one pull of a curtain away from your bed.
 
Could this type of accommodation work in other wild places? A conservation organization and a local inn decided to find out in Portugal at the Faia Brava Wildlife Reserve. The result is called Star Camp. It is an experiment in ecotourism that represents a first for Europe.
 
"You have the landscape of Coa valley on the front of the tent," Sara Nara, owner of Star Camp, tells Smithsonian.com. "You can open up the tent to see it better. You have all the things of a proper bed and breakfast in the wild."
 
The Faia Brava reserve is part of a new series of experiments in Europe to create wild places based on a philosophy similar to that of Yellowstone National Park in the United States, which has reintroduced species like wolves and free-roaming bison in a bid to restore its ecosystem. Traditionally, European wildlife habitats in parks and preserves are intensively managed. But Rewilding Europe, a nonprofit conservation organization, thinks that should change. It has brought together a coalition of smaller nonprofits to steer Europe's wild places towards a hands-off approach that focuses on restoring the native species that can make ecosystems function on their own.
 
"In the past it was always the theory of putting up a fence and managing the processes ourselves," Simon Collier, Wildlife Tourism Manager at Rewilding Europe, tells Smithsonian.com. "But rewilding is challenging that idea. These species can live harmoniously together, and you don't have to manage the land as intensively as we had thought."
 
Faia Brava was farmland 30 years ago. But globalization has forced farmers from all around Europe to compete with each other. The dry, rocky soil makes it difficult to produce many crops at competitive prices. Rewilding Europe is taking over large tracts of former farmland that isn't well suited to modern factory farming in a bid to restore it to something resembling the landscape before Europe's agricultural revolution.
 
Five thousand years ago, much of Europe was probably an open, savannah-like landscape dotted with occasional clumps of trees and brush. It was grazed by large herds of wild horses and aurochs (wild ancestors of modern cattle). Wolves and lynxes prowled for prey and Egyptian vultures circled for the leftovers. It was remarkably similar to much of modern Africa's parklands. Faia Brava has come a long way to restoring that ecosystem for visitors to see.
 
Waking up in Star Camp, visitors may open their tents to see a pristine landscape, which is gradually bearing more of a resemblance to the Portugal of the past.
 
"No telephone lines or radio towers in the distance," says Collier. "Nice gentle, rolling hills. The sunrise in the morning is exactly the same. It provides you with a sense of adventure and a feeling like you are in Africa."
 
The idea for Star Camp "came out of the ecotourism models in South Africa where there was a focus on ecotourism," says Collier. "Building just a guest house wouldn't have been good enough." In the project's early days, he says, the site was selected with careful attention to factors like its natural light, and acoustic atmosphere and sights. 
 
Some of those sights now include animals that are part of a de-extinction program. Though they've long been extinct, aurochs (pronounced like aur-ox) once occupied an ecological niche analogous to the bison in North America or the cape buffalo in Africa. To get Europe's ecosystems functioning again, The Tauros Project began recreating the aurochs by selectively cross-breeding primitive breeds of cattle. It's now gradually working to breed back the aurochs, and the large bovids grazing on Faia Brava are part of the project.
 
Visitors can also spot wild-ranging Garrano horses grazing with the aurochs-in-progress. Garranos are a breed of domestic horse indigenous to the region, which are believed to include a high proportion of genes from wild ancestors that roamed Portugal thousands of years ago. Nearby rock paintings, over 2,500 years old, show ancient horses that look strikingly similar to the Garranos that graze the landscape today (tours of the numerous rock paintings are available at the Coa Valley Archaeological Park).
 
But horses and bovids aren't Faia Brava's only draw. One of the reserve's most popular attractions is a blind that has been constructed in front of a feeding area for Egyptian vultures, griffin vultures and black vultures. The carcasses of deceased donkeys, horses and other livestock are brought here to attract the birds, many of which move between North Africa and Portugal. Birdwatchers and professional photographers have praised it as an unusual opportunity to see these scavengers up close.
 
Star Camp's current platform tents are set up to accommodate couples (perhaps with one small child). A larger, family-sized platform tent is expected to be ready for guests by July of 2017. Though each tent is equipped with a bathroom and running water, Collier calls it "effectively sleeping under the stars with lots of creature comforts."
 
If things go according to plan, Faia Brava will one day become part of a network of wildlife reserves being built throughout Europe. Numerous small reserves are being set aside as land becomes available and safe corridors are planned to eventually connect the properties and allow wildlife to safely migrate as needed. Much like Yellowstone in North America and the parks of South Africa and Namibia, ecologically sensitive tourism is a key component of Rewilding Europe's long-term plans.
 
"It's not just a business model that supports Sara (and Star Camp)," says Collier. "It's to support the reserve as well. Some of that money comes back to the reserve itself. (And) people from the local villages start to see the value in having nature instead of just a cleared landscape."

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why does Europe have limited wild places?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (7)
  • monicas-ste
    4/07/2017 - 02:08 p.m.

    This looks really cool. There should be more places like this. This was a really interesting article.

  • zakrym-ste
    4/11/2017 - 01:48 p.m.

    This is important because the animals need to be able to roam and them being able to roam will be beneficial.

  • bradl-pla
    4/11/2017 - 02:02 p.m.

    Conservationists are planning to establish an ecotourism park at Faia Brava in Portugal. Conservationists look to Africa as a model for parks, and a hands off approach to rebuild Europe's ecosystem. Europe used to be similar to Africa climate wise, and conservationists hope to reintroduce species similar to Yellowstone's program. They also breed animals to act similar to how their extinct counterparts would have.

  • vaneises-
    4/20/2017 - 08:38 a.m.

    Europe has limited wild places because of the amount of people living there and the amount of land need to to house those people, the wouldn't be any room left for wild animals.

  • noahr-ste
    4/21/2017 - 01:36 p.m.

    Europe has limited wild life places because Europe is like all cities. They are now starting to get that wild life is very important and its good to see their getting it.

  • emilyb2-bur
    5/23/2017 - 07:55 p.m.

    Europe has limited wild places because Europe doesn't have enough room to have the wildlife there.There are many cities and people in Europe. The more people the more houses,work buildings,and stores needed which means less wildlife. In my opinion, it's good that they are having more wildlife places and people should see animals as families that need a home .

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