Wild Europe - Eye to eye with nature

Is there still unspoilt nature in Europe? A young film team sets off to discover the last remaining natural treasures of our continent. They soon realise that wilderness is much more than just a dot on the map. Wilderness safeguards biodiversity, helps the climate and protects habitats. But the last untouched areas are threatened by illegal timber trade, poaching and destruction.

Bird's eye view of a mountain lake in Montenegro Bird's eye view of a mountain lake in Montenegro

There are 18 glacial lakes in the Durmitor National Park that from a bird's eye view look like eyes looking up to the sky. The mountain lake Zmijinje Jezero lies remote from civilisation in the middle of pine forests frequented by brown bears, wolves, wild cats and capercaillies.

© Wild Europe e.V.
Collage of the people of Wild Europe

Simon Straetker, Sarah Ziegler and Joshi Nichell are part of the young Wild Europe nature film team.

© Wild Europe e.V.

Sarah Ziegler, Simon Straetker and Joshi Nichell are united by their great love of nature and an unwavering passion to contribute to its preservation. "By sharing stories about wild places, we aim to promote respect for our remarkable planet and a culture of sustainability," they say. In this interview, the three provide an insight into their travels to Europe's last wilderness areas and reveal what moved them when producing their nature documentaries.

You spent five years travelling to Europe's last wilderness areas and got to know many people who are committed to protecting nature. How has this changed your perspective?

Sarah Ziegler: I've been worried about the state of nature for a long time. Our travels have given me hope because they have shown me that just because I don't know about all the people who are committed to nature conservation doesn't mean that they don't exist. The visit to Fapas in Spain, in particular, gave me courage. Roberto Hartasánchez has been campaigning for the brown bears there for such an incredibly long time. On the other hand, it was very upsetting to see the clear-felling of the wild forests in Romania. I had these two contradictory feelings within me. The state of nature is sometimes very poor, and we don't want to gloss over that in our films. But one thing is certain: there is still much beautiful wildlife in Europe! I didn't realise that before.

Simon Straetker: What I've learnt most from my travels is that you have to realise that nature conservation does not stop at national borders. I come from the Black Forest where we have one of the best resourced national parks in Europe. Information centres are being built and funds are available to protect the forests. Elsewhere on our continent, you could achieve a lot more with the same amount of money. I think we have a pan-European responsibility and not just a national one - for example, when it comes to saving the primeval forests in the Romanian Carpathians from deforestation.

Forest-covered mountain slopes in the Romanian Carpathians

Forest wilderness in Domogled National Park

© Wild Europe e.V.

What was your experience in the Romanian primeval forests?

Straetker: Very impressive. The vastness, the huge areas! You look into a valley and don't even see a single road and many of the valleys are completely without footpaths. You quickly realise that the wilderness there is on a different level. I saw two wolves there on the very first day, only a hundred metres away. That was a huge stroke of luck!

Ziegler: Yes, I felt the same way. I'd never seen trees that old before. And it was difficult to film animals because they simply disappeared in this dense forest.

Sawmill in Romania with numerous timber logs

This is where centuries-old trees often end up: a sawmill in the city of Brasov

© Wild Europe e.V.
Environmental activist with dog

The Romanian environmental activist Gabriel Paun has been fighting for nature and animal rights since 2001. Together with EuroNatur, he has campaigned for the protection of Romania's primeval forests over the past few years as managing director of Agent Green. Wild Europe e.V. has portrayed him.

© Wild Europe e.V.

Was the problem of deforestation also evident?

Ziegler: Unfortunately, yes. Together with Gabriel Paun from Agent Green, we were travelling in a protected area in the Făgăraș Mountains, where timber had been illegally felled only a few days earlier. We filmed the deforested area. The tree stumps were scantily covered with branches, and we documented the illegally created transport routes. These deep wounds in the forest were a shocking sight.

People who have documented illegal deforestation have been attacked several times in the past, including Gabriel Paun. How did you feel during the filming?

Ziegler: I never actually felt uncomfortable during the filming, we were careful and didn't seek confrontation. But that day was different. I did wonder whether the lumberjacks would come back.

Straetker: Of course, there was an uneasy feeling because we knew about the dangers of catching someone in the act. But you have to differentiate between the people carrying out the work and the people actually responsible, who operate in corrupt, criminally organised structures. They are the ones who illegally resell the timber, smuggle it into the trade and make the big money. The loggers are mostly simple, poor people who go into the forest with almost no protective equipment and endanger their own lives in the process. That is their sole source of income. There is no point in confronting the forest workers. The problem must be tackled systematically - just as Interpol is already doing with raids.

Agent Green is also very committed to exposing these illegal activities and bringing those responsible to justice...

Ziegler: Yes, the Agent Green people are so courageous! Activists in Romania have to face completely different dangers than, for example, in Germany. By exposing abuses and showing their faces, they automatically make themselves a target.

Straetker: We weren't travelling in the most dangerous areas during our filming. Gabriel Paun told us that in Maramures, for example, in the north on the border with Ukraine, it is almost guaranteed that you will be attacked. Despite this, Agent Green is travelling there for investigative research.

  • Wild Europe - the organisation

    Young photographer in a camouflage suit in the mountains
    © Wild Europe e.V.

    Wild Europe e.V. is a non-governmental organisation that tells the stories behind the protection of wild places. Together with a number of other young people, Sarah Ziegler, Simon Straetker and Joshi Nichell volunteer to make films about conservation heroes and heroines to give them a voice and inspire others. Through film screenings, lectures and photo exhibitions, they aim to appeal to young people in particular by presenting sustainable, environmentally oriented professions. With the online storytelling course "Voices for change", they show how captivating films about nature can be created using simple means. EuroNatur supports the Wild Europe association in the production of films about Europe's last wilderness areas, primarily by providing content and contacts from the EuroNatur network. In return, Wild Europe e.V. makes some of the video and photo recordings available to EuroNatur free of charge for public relations work.  More information on the Internet at voicesforchange.eu and wild-europe.org.

Sawfly in the Gesäuse National Park

The flowering meadows of the Gesäuse National Park in Austria are still home to a variety of insects, the picture shows a sawfly species.

© Wild Europe e.V.
Two women hiking in the High Tatras

"People form the emotional bridge." In this case, the two Polish mountaineers Gosia and Olivia Sakowska (mother and daughter).

© Wild Europe e.V.

Your films provide insights from the EuroNatur project areas that have great depth. How do you create this "added ingredient" that comes across in your recordings?

Nichell: Perhaps it is the passion that provides this added ingredient. We are not sent there, we want to go there, we want to tell these stories.

To what extent do you think you can use film as an instrument to bring about change for the better?

Straetker: On the one hand, there is the "Instagram world", where people try to draw attention to nature with shocking images. On the other hand, there are the expert nerds who spend 80 pages explaining how a beetle species adapts to a change in habitat conditions. Nature conservation is often extremely factual. This is precisely what is difficult to communicate to the majority of the population. Through our films, we build a bridge between these two extremes: We use scientifically sound principles, but prepare them in such a way that they appeal emotionally to the audience. For example, insect mortality is an abstract topic, but with our film in the Gesäuse National Park in Austria, we have brought the concept to life by means of moving images. At the centre of the story is a person who is passionate about insects.

Nichell: Exactly, we give space in our films to the the people living and working in the project areas and create an emotional bridge to our audience. They take us into the beauty of their world, invite us to marvel, but also shake us up. We share the enthusiasm of these people through the camera and this results in wonderful shots that we hope will ignite a spark.

Our travels have given me hope: There are so many great people out there who are committed to nature conservation.

young nature photographer smiles out of the camouflage tent Sarah Ziegler
Filmmaker and diver, board member of Wild Europe e.V.
Conservationist in beekeeper's outfit with frames for beehives

Roberto Hartasánchez founded the Spanish nature conservation organization Fapas with friends over 40 years ago. Among other things, he develops bear-proof beehives to prevent bears from raiding honeycombs (like the one in the picture). His goal: a harmonious coexistence between humans and bears.

© Wild Europe e.V.

You were so impressed during the filming with bear conservationist Roberto Hartasánchez in northern Spain that you did a four-week internship at Fapas in autumn 2023. How did that come about?

Nichell: We only spent a few days working with Fapas during the 2021 shoot, but it inspired me, and I found their way of working so plausible. For example, they build a bear-proof fence for the beekeeper so that he can produce his honey despite the presence of bears in the area. I wanted to delve deeper and hope that others will feel the same way. I want them to see that someone is doing something great, and that they too can perhaps join in or start a similar project.

Ziegler: That's why we started giving talks at schools very early on. We want to show people how they can do something meaningful with their lives. It is important for us to showcase people who are active in protecting nature.

Straetker: For many young people who live in cities, this is a completely alien world. We have also given talks at university where students have come up to us and said: Wow, we didn't realise that you could have such a job as a scientist!

Through wild Europe

(Tip: Click on the images to see them in full size.)

What does it take to get the younger generations even more interested in nature?

Nichell: I find it difficult to say what the younger generation needs as such. The more different approaches there are, the more people will be attracted. Our role models are very different in their approaches. There is the mum in the Tatra Mountains who passes on her enthusiasm. Perhaps another mum can identify with that. Then there will be someone who watches a film and is inspired to study biology. You can never know what will spark off interest in people.

Ziegler: I have the feeling that it's more the older people in positions of power who need a kick up the arse!

Can I quote you on that?

Ziegler: Yes, feel free (laughs). 

What is it that unites you as a team?

Ziegler: Clearly the enthusiasm for nature.

Nichell: And the hope that we can pass on our own enthusiasm through our films.

Rangers in front of a breathtaking mountain panorama

The ranger Mican in Durmitor National Park (Montenegro)

© Wild Europe e.V.
Bear in front of the evening sky in the Cantabrian Mountains

The brown bears in the Cantabrian Mountains: a success story of species conservation

© Wild Europe e.V.

What are the important features of EuroNatur from your point of view?

Nichell: That you support really great projects! For example, the work of Fapas in Spain. It's so good that there is support from Germany for this really small but very influential organisation. 40 years ago there were only 30 brown bears in the Cantabrian Mountains, today there are more than 350. That's an incredibly positive development. Almost everyone who gave me a lift in the region knew Fapas. Roberto Hartasánchez and his team have managed to make a name for themselves and they have the power to make a difference on the ground, even though they remain a small organisation with just five employees.

Straetker: I was also impressed by the people who have been working in the project areas, often for for a very long time. I just don’t know where on earth they get the energy to get up every day and continue at this intensity. They are constantly confronted with problems, stress and setbacks and live on a very modest wage. But something drives them. Meeting people like that and making a film with them is incredibly inspiring. EuroNatur has a wonderful network! The fact that we were able to meet people from this network was hugely enriching for us. Our films have increased in depth as a result.

Ziegler: I think of EuroNatur first and foremost as an organisation working outside of national boundaries - not just looking after its own national affairs but taking a European perspective. This creates a strong sense of community to fight for nature in Europe. And the people at EuroNatur are all very nice!

The author of this article, Katharina Grund, found the interview with the young filmmakers from Wild Europe e.V. very inspiring and was happy to be present at the premiere of the multivision presentation "Wild Europe" in Freiburg.

Multivision presentation on tour

Wild Europe speakers in front of a large audience in Freiburg

A great audience at the premiere presentation at Mundologia in Freiburg

© Black Forest Collective

In a visually stunning live presentation, the film team takes viewers to wilderness areas in Europe that are as fragile as they are beautiful.  In October and November 2024, Sarah Ziegler, Simon Straetker and Joshi Nichell will go on tour in Switzerland.

Further information, dates and tickets online at wild-europe.org/vortrag (in german)

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