Wolves used to be endemic to France but persecution and human encroachment on their habitat drastically reduced their numbers and by 1940 they were declared extinct in France. However in 1992 a pair of grey wolves was discovered in the Mercantour National Park in the Alpes-Maritimes having crossed over from Italy and the population has been growing steadily since. There are now thought to be about 300 wolves in France in 20-25 separate packs, spreading further across the country.
This resurgence of wolves in France has become a divisive issue between farmers, (notably shepherds) who claim around 5000 livestock are killed annually and environmentalists, who believe farmers need to adapt their methods in order to live alongside wild wolves. The public is firmly on the side of the wildlife conservationists (for now). Wolves are protected by the Bern Convention (1979), though a handful can be “culled” annually, but there are increasing demands for the protection to be lifted from mountain areas and even national parks, where it is claimed the wolves threaten biodiversity as well as livestock.
The whole debate about wolves and their complicated presence in the French countryside is excellently explained at Alpha Parc, a wildlife park where wolves live in semi-wild conditions, on the edge of the Mercantour National Park. We recently visited to find out more about this enigmatic and contentious animal.
Alpha Parc is located in the mountains, at 1500m altitude, in Alpine forest protected by national park status, next to the beautiful Boréon river. Surrounded by higher peaks, you feel a thousand miles away from the coast and yet it’s only an hour from Nice and the buzz of the French Riviera. The park consists of two sections: firstly having crossed an attractive covered bridge you arrive in an area with a café, shop, toilets, picnic tables, a playground, a mini petting farm and 3 small cinemas. The wildlife park is separated by a covered passageway and no eating, drinking or smoking is permitted once in this area.
On arrival you are met by a member of staff who explains the layout and how the park works. The idea is to watch 3 short audio-visual presentations before going to see the animals in order to have a better understanding of the context, though you are free to do what you want and the films are not obligatory. They are in French but you can get headsets for other languages at the ticket office and I highly recommend taking the time to watch the films as they are excellent and thought provoking.
The films with 3D holograms are shown in restored old cow sheds, kitted out to look like the homes and offices of the different people presenting their point of view on living with wolves. In order to fully understand the implications of wolves returning to the wild, you meet Bastien the hunter, Jean the scientist and Auguste and Marie, sheep farmers. You are left to make up your own mind and it’s certainly not a straightforward issue.
Having watched the presentations it’s an uphill walk to the wildlife area. There are 3 packs of wolves at Alpha Parc and it must be stressed that it is not a zoo, the animals live in wild conditions in forested enclosures of up to 3 hectares so it is not guaranteed that you will see any animals. There are feeding sessions a couple of times during the day at the different packs so to be sure not to be disappointed it may be worth checking the times by phone beforehand (this information isn’t on the website). We didn’t do this and just got lucky!
Each pack lives in a separate area and there are lookouts/hides to watch them from. There is also a cabin with information on the habitat, life and behaviour etc of the wolf where keepers give talks at certain times of the day. The majority of the park is steeply hilly and the paths are not suitable for strollers or wheelchairs (though it is possible for people with reduced mobility to visit the first area and get to one of the three packs of wolves). Pushchairs can be left in a storeroom in the café and baby carriers are available to hire if needed. Between the second and third pack you can walk direct or take a detour along a discovery trail where plants and trees are labelled. If you are pressed for time or young kids are likely to grow tired I would suggest taking the direct route as the nature trail isn’t anything special.
There’s something inherently scary about wolves. It’s not just that they’re dangerous wild animals, after all hippos kill more people in Africa than any other wild animal but they don’t come across as frightening. Bears are big and dangerous but look cuddly. So what is it about wolves? Is it their thin yellow eyes that send shivers down the spine, or is it that they often represent evil in myths and fairy tales? (Though in stark contrast the image below shows a rare example of a myth involving wise and kind wolves!)
Is it their haunting howl or association with the terrifying werewolf? Probably a combination of all of these but having seen them peacefully lounging around in their natural habitat, admittedly not hunting or feeding, these wolves looked to me pretty much just like their modern descendent, the domestic dog and not scary at all. I don’t suppose shepherds feel this way and undoubtedly children will go on being afraid of the “big bad wolf” but a visit to Alpha Parc puts a lot of this into perspective and leaves you contemplating the complicated issue of how to manage their growing presence in France.
Alpha Parc is excellently done, combining education and fun and I wholeheartedly recommend it as a great day out from the Côte d’Azur for the whole family. It’s a beautiful drive mostly following the Vésubie river through dramatic gorges which in itself is worthwhile and at this time of year the autumn colours are absolutely stunning.
Alpha Parc is ten years old in 2015 and to celebrate they are offering free entry to all children born in 2005. There’s still time to make the most of this offer, just don’t forget to take ID with proof of age. I hear it’s pretty magical to visit in the snow. On a practical note you can take a picnic and either eat it outside the park by lake Boréon, watching the trout jump, as we did, or inside at the enormous picnic tables.
Once you’ve eaten there are lockers to leave your picnic bag in so as not to carry food and heavy bags around inside the animal area. You can of course eat at the café too. Don’t forget the park is at 1500m altitude which means it is significantly cooler than the coast, so bring appropriate clothes and sturdy footware (the paths are rocky). For more information on special events such as birthday parties and being a keeper for the day, and directions to get there, check the website (mainly in French, limited sections in English).
Would you like to see wolves at Alpha Parc? What do you think about their return to France?
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