The early bird catches the worm

Many people dream about being their own boss but hesitate because of the risks. This especially applies to the nature conservation field, which is highly underfunded across the globe. Young conservationists have a difficult time finding a job with limited placements available and big international competition out there. However, passion, perseverance and boldness can always pay off. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, but many swallows might… And we were introduced to a success story proving this, when we met the Milvus Group, the currently biggest Romanian nature conservation NGO that is not associated with any international umbrella organisation.

Milvus everywhere we go

The Milvus Group Bird and Nature Protection Association is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation based in Romania, with the headquarters in Târgu Mureș. The organisation is started in bird conservation, but now covers all facets of nature protection, from biodiversity and education to climate change, research and consultancy. As we arrived at their office, we were greeted very warmly by the team. 

But that was actually already the second time we met Milvus members. Two days after we entered Romania, we were hosted by Zola Szabó, ornithologist, adventurer and Milvus staff in his home in Savadisla near Cluj Napoca. He was the first conservationist we spoke to in Romania, and provided us a lot of insight into nature protection in the country. After we said goodbye to him and his family and cycled into Cluj for some sightseeing and getting new gear, who offered to host us? Gergely Osváth, Zola´s friend, a fellow ornithologist working in the Zoological Museum in Cluj, and guess what: a Milvus member. From there on, it was only two days to Târgu Mureș, where again, we encountered such hospitality that we could even spend the night at the Milvus office. Is it Romanian hospitality, conservationist hospitality, or Milvus bringing together a bunch of friendly, welcoming and outgoing people? It’s probably all three combined, and we immediately felt at ease among them.

The origin story of the Milvus Group

After we pack down our bags, change from our sweaty clothes and shapeshift back to presentable human beings, we sit down with Róbert Zeitz a.k.a Bobi, one of the founders of Milvus, as well as with Réka Szilágyi and Attila Marton from the team. The office is rather empty these days, they explain, as many other staff members are currently out in the field, conducting biodiversity surveys in different parts of Romania. We want to hear about the origins, and Bobi tells us how Milvus was born. Imagine a group of seven enthusiastic 16-year-old young bird-watchers, who had the wish to become ornithologists, live for their passion, and build a reliable livelihood on it. They wanted to protect endangered species, particularly birds, conduct conservation research and be a strong player for bird conservation in Romania. And they wanted to do this independently. The response from their grown-up surroundings: “Your own association at this age? You´re not going to last for long, and as a group of friends, you can never reach a professional level.”

Against all odds and advice, as they reached a legal age, they founded the Milvus Group in 1991. They wished to protect nature, and create a sustainable profession for themselves doing what they love. A bold and rare career move by university students. Soon after its establishment, the group joined the Romanian Ornithological Society, becoming its branch in Târgu Mureș. Alongside their university duties, the members carried out various bird surveys in the region, published annual activity reports and started to organise yearly birding camps. At this time most of these activities were done on a voluntary basis, or compensated to a limited extent. But shared passion fueled the team, and finally, the first major income arrived in 1999. 

Eventually in 2001, with the wish to be free as a bird, initiate and coordinate bigger national and international projects, the Milvus Group decided to split from the Romanian Ornithological Society and became an independent organisation. At the same time, the association broadened its field of activities, no longer focusing solely on birds, but also conducting activities on mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish – basically everything related to biodiversity conservation, including nature education programs as well.

Role in the designation of Romanian Natura 2000 sites

After Romania joined the EU in 2007, still as a young NGO, Milvus achieved one of their  greatest conservation successes: after years of credible work, Milvus played an important role in the designation of Romanian Natura 2000 sites. As a result, Romania’s network of protected areas tripled and now covers 24% of the country. Bobi tells us that up to 2016, NGOs in Romania were also eligible to manage Natura 2000 sites, and so Milvus was the custodian of several Natura 2000 sites. However, commencing in 2016, the governance approach was changed, by establishing a new authority, the National Agency of Protected Areas, aiming at coordination of protected areas management. Consequently, NGOs were excluded from the management of protected areas. 

Therefore, a high number of Natura 2000 sites are managed by designated local Environmental Protection Agencies, but without sufficient resources allocated. As Bobi tells us, all these issues lead to inadequate management of Natura 2000 sites and consequently poor conservation programs in these sites.

Spread your wings and fly

Since this early phase, Milvus has grown rapidly, made possible through the funds coming from European Union nature protection projects. By now, Milvus is the biggest independent nature conservation NGO in the whole country, which is not associated with any international umbrella organisation. With 25 employees, many more members and collaborators, Milvus has a specialised team of ecologists, nature educators, photographers, and passionate conservationists. The organisation is located in Transylvania, which has a big Hungarian minority (1.2 million people). Therefore, Milvus works and communicates bilingually, in Romanian and Hungarian. 

As an independent NGO with a very diverse expertise, Milvus spread its wings and is active on various topics. As we talk to Bobi, Réka and Attila, we are honestly shocked by all the activities and initiatives currently running within the organisation. Conducting species surveys is a regular activity of Milvus, which has brought a lot of new information on the distribution and population dynamics of birds, mammals and amphibians in Romania. Through various projects, the team focuses on the targeted conservation of several species of birds (e.g. European roller, Red-footed falcon, Golden eagle and White stork) and mammals (e.g. European ground squirrel and Brown bear).

When we ask Bobi about memorable successes, he tells us about the Saker falcon, a globally threatened, highly protected bird of prey. About 100 years ago it was present throughout Romania, but by the turn of the millennium the number of breeding pairs had drastically declined and only a few pairs were known to breed across the whole country. Within an international project, Milvus succeeded in increasing the breeding population to more than 15 pairs in western Romania, thanks to conservation measures such as the installation of artificial nest boxes. This was only possible through strong stakeholder-work, talking to locals, explaining why they are there and what they are doing.

Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation

Milvus has been active in bird rescue for a long time, and has established the first official, registered wildlife rehabilitation centre in the country, which is currently operated through the cooperation of Milvus and the national network of Vets4Wild. There are more than 150 wild animals in the centre every year, and its funding is secured through projects and donations.  

We even have the chance to visit the branch of the centre in town, and meet with the coordinator Gyuri Sajnár. He responds to the calls at the emergency hotline – sometimes dozens daily, he tells us. “The most important task is to pick up the phone,” Gyuri explains. “There are many so-called rehabilitation centres across the country, but often when I pick up the phone, the caller on the other side is deeply relieved that after many unsuccessful attempts, somebody finally answers.” These calls come from various parts of the country for advice, information or guidance on how to save a wild animal – most of which suffered injuries due to human infrastructure and activities, such as electrocution on power lines, collision with cars and buildings, as well as indirect poisoning by eating poisoned mice and rats.

“This job cannot be done with less than 100% dedication, and frankly, it is not easy. However, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing an injured animal regain its strength and return to its natural habitat, the wild – and knowing that you had a role in that.”

Gyuri Sajnár, Coordinator of the Milvus Wildlife rescue centre

Expertise, credibility and perseverance

From our conversation with the Milvus staff, it becomes clear that one of the biggest values for the association is to stay, above all, scientific. To everyone’s surprise who warned them back in the 90s when Milvus was founded, its members persevered through the difficult times, and didn’t stop to broaden their professional skill set. This way they have found their way in the Romanian nature conservation field. 

“When you look at all the nature protection issues and that many things are still getting worse, it is hard not to get active in all of them to find a solution.” Bobi tells us. As education is a crucial piece of the puzzle, Milvus has a long-standing experience with taking others under its wings through nature education programmes, such as the “Game On!” project we wrote about not so long ago. They also organise an annual nature photography competition, birding camps, do policy work aiming to reform agriculture and make the agricultural support system more nature and smallholder friendly; and bring forward packages revising forestry and wildlife management policies. There is a Milvus scholarship programme that supports students who are interested in conducting their own research in the field of nature conservation. Milvus developed the first Romanian bird identification app, and created a 9-part video series on the Brown bear, called “Bear facts”. And the list could still go on.

“We are slowly realising that we cannot do everything, but we still try to do everything. We would love it if there were more Romanian organisations in this field working on a local scale, who could jump in and take responsibility for tackling at least some of these issues. But frankly speaking, the sector is very small.” Bobi explains. Therefore, their biggest challenges are “…that alongside our growing portfolio and team, Milvus shall remain scientifically exact and up-to-date, and combine that with maximum activity, quality and quantity. Plus, what always remains a challenge in this field is to communicate effectively, and make people understand the real problem.” 

Milvus created a platform that did not exist before. It raised unprecedented awareness for many species in Romania, and to us, this meeting showed how far passion, determination and boldness can take you, and how important team spirit really is in all these endeavours. We wish the Milvus Group all the best, and encourage you to visit their website for more information about their activities.