EARLY ONE morning in November 1992, a sound that had not been heard for over seventy years carried on the wind through the mist-shrouded forests of the Mercantour National Park. It was one of the most recognisable sounds to man; a uniquely long, low pitch that asserted the returning presence of one of the most charismatic and controversial predators in Europe.
Deep-rooted persecution, loss of habitat due to land clearance for development, and a reduction in numbers of prey species threatened the very survival of small, isolated populations in France. The mere thought of any recovery was all but lost. Thanks, however, to conservation measures, legal protection and increased environmental awareness throughout Europe, wolves have made a slow but steady comeback, although loss of habitat and the ongoing conflict over livestock farming continue to pose threats to their long-term survival.
Since its creation in 1979, the Mercantour has become one of the most popular of the seven French national parks, receiving over 800,000 visitors a year. I picked up a hire car in Nice and, once off the National Road RN202, I enjoyed a pleasant drive through Les Gorges de la Vésubie via traditional villages such as Lantosque and Roquebilliere and on to Saint-Martin Vésibue. From here, it is a further 2km to Le Boréon and a final 8km along a lake road to reach the Chalet d’Accueil, a visitor centre with café, restaurant and gîtes in the heart of one of the most preserved areas of the park.
This is the gateway to the Scénoparc Alpha – Le Temps du Loup, a 10ha wildlife park and family-friendly educational centre with a main focus on the region’s wolves. The park offers three Scénovisions, 20-minute multi-sensorial shows featuring three different characters, a shepherd, forest guard and scientist, their lives and interaction with wolves. The films are shown in two former single storey, traditional wood and stone byres, which were originally used to shelter cows.
Last year 60,000 visitors passed through the turnstiles, first crossing Le Pont de Cerise over the crystal-clear Le Boréon, where the park entrance is guarded by wooden sculptures of wolves in the summer, and ice statues in the winter. Ahead are the impressive two byres, adjacent to a café and gift shop. Visitors then pass through Le Chalet de Cerise, an atmospheric wooden enclosure complete with trees, sculptures and wolf howls.
The park is currently home to both European Grey and Canadian wolves, kept in three separate areas. The animals thrive in a natural environment of larch, fir and spruce trees, and can be seen in specially constructed viewing areas through glass or from a wooden balcony high above their habitat. A chalkboard by the café advises visitors of the feeding regime, as these are the best times for both watching and photographing the wolves, before they disappear back into the trees.
Guide Cyril Auribault explains: “There are many parts of the enclosure where the wolves can have their own privacy without being seen by the public, and therefore they do not get stressed out, which is why this sanctuary is built so differently from a zoo. It was constructed with good viewing in mind, not through wire, but glass or open sightings.
“The first animals were introduced here in 2005, and since then we have witnessed a number of births. They are a real family, and every wolf has its own place in the pack. It is true that they are not truly wild because they have been born in captivity, and so have not learned how to hunt. Having said that, we try to have as little interaction as possible because they are still wild animals. Each wolf has a name, as it is easier for the paperwork. Whenever we have a new animal at the park, we choose up to twenty names, which we place on Facebook and leave it up to children to decide the most popular in a competition.”
The fear of wolves is ingrained in many people’s psyche, having often been demonised through children’s books. Yet the lives of these gracious, magnificent animals are structured around family, their loyalty, intelligence and curiosity driving them to explore new territories, which is why they will continue to come into contact with humans. And this is exactly why we must learn to have a better understanding of these apex predators as they struggle to survive in a world hostile to their very existence, and why attractions such as Alpha les Loups du Mercantour could help play such a vital educational role towards their ultimate survival in the wild.
- All images © Essential Journeys/Michael Cowton
Parc Alpha, Chalet d’Accueil du Boréon, RD 89, 06450 Saint-Martin Vésubie, France