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 the south of 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 2 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 packs of wolves). Pushchairs can be left in a storeroom in the café and baby carriers are available to hire if needed.
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 footwear (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?
Hunting, wild boar and the pigs’ revenge
Transhumance, Autumn and a hill-top village
Why not PIN this for later!
I agree. Zoos show animals in total captivity.
At Alpha, humans witness natural behaviour in a semi wild environment, which has got to be good.
This is so interesting and it’s great that the wolves weren’t extinct and are having something of a revival. Your photos are great and it’s so interesting to learn about the history of them in France. I would love to visit. Thank you for linking up to #GlobalKids
Alpha Parc looks like such a great excursion. I’ve decided that I like sanctuaries better than zoos. even though you’re not guaranteed a sighting. It sounds like the movies aim to give a balanced view of the interaction between wolves and humans which seems very fair.
Your wolves get a special mention on Animal Tales tomorrow 🙂
It really was lovely Priya, they looked so healthy and unstressed.
Yes it’s definitely really well thought out.
what beautiful animals they are and lovely photographs, it’s great that they give you so much information on the project
Beautiful photos and Alpha Parc looks lovely… how exciting to see the wolves lounging around like that totally in their element!
I took these photos from a hide about 10 metres from the animals. They were very immobile and didn’t pay us any attention but had they felt like it they could have come to about 2 m away.
Perfectly summed up Ersatz Expat. 🙂
Yes they certainly are!
It’s a really great park Sarah with the right balance between education and action.
Interesting to hear that it’s similar in Romania, thanks for adding that Oana.
We’ve been there before Catherine but in our first summer here when the kids were 2 and 7 so it was definitely time to go back and they both enjoyed it again.
Thank you! They’re not hard to photograph when calmly lazing around like this.
Thanks Rosie, you’re right Saari does look very like these particular wolves. I’ll take a look at the video when I get a mo!
How interesting that you remember wolves returning in Italy. Thanks for your lovely words Gretta.
Wolves are beautiful and I’d love to visit this park to see them. I remember when they were released in Italy. This is a really interesting post to read.
What an excellent post, Phoebe and Alpha Parc seems to be going about the wolf issue in just the right way by educating people to understand the wolves and their lives as they certainly do have a bad image in the minds of many people. I was also going to mention the Yellowstone wolves but Kriss beat me to it – there’s a video worth watching and I’ll see if I can find it. I would be terrified to meet a wolf head on whilst out in the mountains but like you say, the chances of that happening are so slim. It might however make me think twice about taking Saari for a walk off the lead as she looks so wolf like I could see her giving local hikers a heart attack! Thank you for adding our first wolves to #AnimalTales 🙂
Here’s the video – How Wolves Change Rivers – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysa5OBhXz-Q
I think they are such beautiful animals. Your photos are stunning. I would so love to see them. Kaz x
You certainly find some amazing things to do Phoebe. Fascinating blog and great photos.
Wolves have a similar turbulent existence and history in Romania. I do see both sides of the debate and although I would never vote for a life to be terminated, I understand the challenges the farmers face now.xx
Wolves are such beautiful creatures – what an amazing place to go and see them as well, so good they are trying to keep them alive and well and free from danger. x
Wolves are beautiful creatures aren’t they?
What a wonderful sanctuary. I would love to go. The issue itself is complex but the animals are beautiful.
Sounds like you had quite the adventure with the wolves. Were you able to get really close?
Now that would be quite something Richard…
I’m glad I don’t have to make the decision too as it’s always going to upset some people. I always gravitate to the environmental/conservationists pov but farmers are very powerful in France and upsetting them can cause big problems!!
They are more afraid of humans than we are of them, I doubt you’d ever actually see one in the wild Fiona.
Thanks Helen! I’m definitely with the wolves too.
It’s good to hear the reintroduction of wolves in the US has had a positive effect. When are you booking your holiday at Lou Messugo Kriss?!!
I completely agree with you Erica, I find this a hard argument to swallow too.
Thanks Lauren, the are beautiful and we were lucky to get so close for these photos.
Interesting that you use fascinating rather than scary….
Haunting is good adjective to use to describe wolves I agree.
I agree that these wolves in particular look very like German Shepherds.
It’s heartening to hear of a species making a comeback isn’t it? Book a holiday at Lou Messugo Kara and bring your husband and son to see them!!
Thanks for this Liz, the igloos sound fun!
I hope they don’t join the wild boar in your garden. You’d better keep a sharp lookout.
Do check the calendar out before heading North – there are quite often festive season events – and igloos built for mid February. It is stunning up here in the Mercantour at the moment!
What an amazing story that they have come back. My husband and son adore wolves and we would love to see them in their natural habitat
Wow! Such beautiful creatures. I crew up with German Shepard dogs and they always reminded me of wolves 🙂
I do love wolves! There’s just something haunting about them. Beautiful creatures too. But I do understand why some farmers think they are a pest, especially if they kill their livestock. Would love to visit this place too! #animaltales
I find wolves fascinating, but not scarey. I think that as they returned on their own, they should be allowed to remain
Some gorgeous photos here, wolves really are magnificent animals aren’t they? I think they should be there, in their natural habitat!
I find it difficult to believe that they really threaten biodiversity. I’d think they’d increase it and help keep on top of large herbivore numbers which can be a problem for farmers and habitats alike – it’s important to have an apex predator and that’s something that is a problem in parts of the uk.
My son is in love with wolves so oh boy do we need to try and visit here some time. He doesn’t just have wolf cuddlies but also lots of books on wolves. In the US wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone national park in the mid 90s. It’s had a massive and positive cascade effect on the eco-system there.
What a lovely post. I think wolves are wonderful and beautiful animals. I’m on the wolves side as well.
They do scare me, as a lover of the South of France I’m not keen to see them there! However contained in a park with plenty of space and natural habitat I think it would be great, this park looks amazing and such stunning scenery too #AnimalTales
I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the resurgence of wildlife thought to be extinct. I’m on the wolves side and understand that farmers will always have a different view of something that steals their livelihood. I’m just glad I’m not the one who has to make the decisions to maintain a balance between the two.