A kettle of vulture’s circle high in the sky, with wings wide and necks outstretched to surf the summer thermal draft. In the valley below the Arda river loops and doubles back on itself, a naked man basks on the shingle beach. A kilometer beyond sits the town, sitting dead center in the crater of a flaccid volcano, the town is empty, its population dwindling since the gold mine closed leaving behind tumbleweed pensioners. This description is beginning to sound bleak but this is the eastern Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria and nothing is ever as it seems.
Steeped in history and shrouded in mystery the forested peaks of the Rhodope cover around 12,000 km’s of Bulgaria on the Balkan peninsular, the town of Madzharovo a stone’s throw from the border with Greece.
It’s the land of Orpheus and serpents and dancing trees, and where the landscape has been carved by dragons.
With its population now hovering at around 500 its gold rush days are long gone, during the communist times when the mine was open the town was flush with cash, in the now shuttered and somewhat forlorn-looking Sky Club Bar they would come from miles around just to rub shoulders with the wealthy miners, their salaries five times that of the locals, in fact they couldn’t get rid of it says Veselina who used to work behind the bar back in the day, with nothing but Rakia and beer to spend it on, they would roll up wads of Leva to prop up wobbly table legs she laughed. And is there still gold in dem hills? Oh yes, she says assuredly and the prospectors still come and sift and silt along the seams, ever hopeful of what the ancient Thracian tribes had thrived on.
Just outside town on a forested bluff beside the river is the Vulture Visitor Centre, bustling with volunteers twitching with anticipation at the imminent arrival of a couple of chicks from Prague, that is to say, a pair of Egyptian vulture fledglings from Prague zoo.
The magnificent Egyptian vulture was once a common sight above the peaks of the Balkan peninsular but is now globally under threat. Needless to say increased urbanization, exploitative agricultural practice and poaching have all contributed to their steady decline. But somewhat surprisingly the tables may be turning and it seems the human population in Bulgaria is now in decline and the vultures are having something of a renaissance.
Marrin, the ruddy-faced center manager swigs from his cold can of Kamenitza beer and tries to explain the state of the local food chain;
It’s all to do with the cows he says;
Cows? I question and pull the ring on my beer.
Da, they are wild and rare.
Rare wild cows I ponder as Marrin sups on his beer as though he has explained everything.
Marrin detecting I am a bit slow on the up-take goes into further detail;
The Rhodope short horn cow is one of the last remaining indigenous cattle still surviving in Bulgaria, one of the last of the European prehistoric breeds; numbers had fallen to a few hundred. Predatory wolves being the chief culprits so the local farmers would use poison to combat the wolves, not only the cows and wolves would fall victim but the vultures feeding on poisoned carrion set out for the wolves would also get caught up in the rural carnage.
Wild cows, wolves, vultures. I shifted uneasily in my seat and eyed the surrounding forest with suspicion.
With help from the Bulgarian Bird Society and funds from the European Union a truce between the wolves and farmers has been holding long enough to reverse the decline, the successful preservation and protection of raptors such as the Griffin and Egyptian Vulture is just part of the re-wilding of Europe that has also witnessed the re-introduction of Bison to Bulgaria, missing for centuries.
The chicks from Prague have arrived and after having electronic tags attached by the BBS team they will be settled into a hack perched on the side of the mountain in preparation for life in the wild.
A task not for the faint of heart that will involve the scaling of a Rhodope peak with the birds carried in crates strapped to the backs of intrepid Sherpa-esq team members. Scrabbling over scree and hauling along rope pulleys, with the river diminishing in size and the vistas growing grander, it’s a long way down.
The absolute dedication and commitment to the cause could not be more evident as one of the BBS experts laden with a heavy wooden crate abseil from the summit and places the juvenile Vulture in the hack.
As the summer heat subsides and autumn approaches the migration will begin, a not unfamiliar story; from the barbed wire boundaries of Europe, across Anatolia into the Middle East and Africa, a journey in search of resource, safety, and security, a journey fraught with risk, a journey of hope and the struggle to survive.
Madzharovo has turned its back on its industrial past and is rebranding itself; the giant murals painted on the side of communist housing blocks are testament to a proud new vision.
And what of the naked man sunning himself on the banks of the Arda I hear you ask? He, much like the nearby town is returning to nature.
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John Wreford is a professional photographer based in Istanbul, Turkey.
Great pictures and interesting post.
Thank you my friend 🙂
Nice article bruv ,hope all is good with you .
Sent from my iPad
Fantastic storytelling all around. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment-much appreciated 🙂
Thank you Carolyn 🙂
Great post and what an interesting part of Bulgaria ~ your first sentence was perfect, “A kettle of vulture’s circle high in the sky…” made me want to read more and learn more of your adventure / story. I’ve always enjoyed great writing and photos, well done. Cheers to your successes.
Im so glad you enjoyed it.
All the best 🙂
Thank you 🙂
Hope life is good
Can’t complain when you look at everything else going on. Thank you.
Your text tells me you are good?
Thanks for sharing the history and present of this part of this country. I appreciate knowing more about it. I have watched in horror as Trump has ended many of the regulations in the US that protected animals, now letting people kill hibernating bears and their cubs, going after wolves, etc. Your article points out how the cycle of life depends upon each other and all species. Great photos!
I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Least said about the Trump is best I think.
Fascinating story, which your photos vividly bring to life.
I’ve been studying the history of wolves in the US, including the fear and negative attitudes imported by the European settlers who virtually exterminated them through shooting and poisoning. Gray wolves been reintroduced but are still vilified and killed. Indigenous peoples in North America co-existed quite happily with wolves before Europeans arrived. So I’m not surprised to learn of their similar fate in Bulgaria, how trying to “control” them impacted other species like the vultures. I hope the vultures and the wolves thrive once again in Bulgaria and all across Europe, signals that the rest of the environment is healing and re-wilding.
Fascinating John. Thank you.
Thank you Rebecca
Your research does sound very interesting.
This is a relatively new field for me and one I am beginning to be quite absorbed by. In this region of Bulgaria there has been lots of success, in general the farmers have been quick to appreciate the value and have been more than cooperative. I have also seen how quick nature can heal given some help, the importance of re-wilding is something we are only just beginning to appreciate I think.
Sorry I thought I had replied to your comment!
Very interesting reasearch.
I have heard of some very positive developments in Euroipe although deep rooted attitudes are hard to over turn.
Perhaps you have seen this-
Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂
Interesting post. Thanks for sharing. 🙂
Thank you for reading and taking the tme to comment Lynette
Much appreciated 🙂
Super! Thank you, indeed, for sharing!
Thanks Adrian 🙂
what a wild place
Haha wild indeed.
Thanks for dropping by Andy
Cheers to the man returning to nature. Great story, John.
Ha glad you appreciated that part Jeni 🙂
Is the roof on yet?
I appreciated it all, John! Thanks for asking. Roof on yesterday! Big drops of rain falling on my decomposing tent tonight. Time to move over!
An interesting story and well-told. Good to read that those stunning birds are getting a helping hand. That is indeed a commitment trekking up to the peak with the crates of birds.
Thank you Caroline
Those guys were quite heroic, honestly above and beyond
Excellent blog that I can relate to on many different levels, there has been a lot of this kind of work here in South Africa to restore vulture populations, particularly from the paragliding community, they are magnificent animals to soar with, perhaps with the landscape in that area they can look to adventure tourism to boost their livelihoods??
Thank you Brent.
Glad you appreciated the post.
Yes, eco tourism is something being explored, the Vulture Centre has beds and arranges various activities and locally trekking, cycling, Kayaking etc is very popular. As I understand it activities such as paragliding etc is not allowed in the protected areas.
Great photos and interesting post.
Thank you Luisa
That was such an enjoyable read. And cheering, to hear some positive news about wildlife. Even wild cows, as someone deeply suspicious of even the calmest of domestic ones!
Thank you Margaret
I’m so glad you enjoyed it.
They seemed pretty trust worthy to me 🙂
What an amazing story! We have many vultures thriving here in Costa Rica and I really love and admire them. I even wrote a poem about them called Oh To Be A Vulture found on my blog. I really enjoyed your post.
Thank you 🙂
They are quite amazing birds-
I found and enjoyed your poem-thank you
One day I would like to reach this level of experience in writing… 🌸🌸
Absolutely interesting! And well-written. Thanks for the look at another part of the world. Really enjoyed it.
My pleasure 🙂
I’m so glad you enjoyed it
I remember watching Egyptian vultures while hiking around Greece in the early ’80s but didn’t realize their dire circumstances, though I’m not surprised to learn of this, given all the signs of poaching I encountered. Glad to hear that things are changing for the wilder in your location. Thanks, and all the best to you, to the wolves & to the vultures.
Thank you Walt.
As I understand it the situation in Greece is still no better, sadly. Hopefully the success in Bulgaria will set an example and things will improve.
It’s really written well. Kept me engaged till the end
Thank you Sarah
It pleases me to hear that
Just love your writing, I could almost be there.
Thank you so much Lauren 🙂
Beautiful writing and photos! I must say I could go for a rakija right about now, and to think this wonder of nature and peculiarity was at my doorstep. Well, if you ever go to Serbia (which I hope I will soon as well), visit Zasavica (zasavica.org.rs/en), an oasis of nature with so called Podolian cows (Podolsko goveče) which originate directly from the European wild cow. There are also friendly donkeys, horses and a type of cute, hairy pig called mangulica. And many, many other animals.
Very happy to join you in that Rakija 🙂
Lots of very good reasons to visit Serbia, I have only been very briefly to Belgrade but do hope once the world resets to some kind of normality I can return.
Actually I think I would go just to meet Mangulica
Thanks for dropping by 🙂
Wow 😯. So impressive.you are a great narrator.
So kind of you Yas 🙂
Love this. Super cool, and a great look at a part of the world that so many of us do not know.
Thank you so much
Glad you enjoyed it
Thanks for stopping by to read my blog. I am so glad to have discovered yours – so interesting and such great writing and photography! Keep it up and keep traveling! ~Mark
I think you have been on a quite incredible journey.
Glad you enjoyed mine