HIGH IN the Alpes-Maritime, a former hunting estate has been transformed into a stunning natural sanctuary for endangered European wildlife.
Leaving the medieval town of Grasse, where colourful, vine-strangled properties spill down the mountainside like confetti, I climb through switchbacks which, in turn, throw up amazing views across the mist-shrouded peaks of the Alpes-Maritime, poking their heads through clouds like sentinels urgent to claim a better view of the distant coast. The bustling town of Cannes is a mere 15km away, yet it might as well be 150km.
Higher and higher I drive, watching the thermometer slowly dip as I reach an altitude of 1200 metres and, finally, the commune of Thorenc. I have left behind the crowds of tourists and the constant stream of vehicles, to find myself settled into a mosaic of sweeping, cropped pastures, where rocky escarpments lay protective over ageing woodland. It is as if I have driven through the looking glass into the back garden of a landscape artist.
Once a hunting estate, the 700 hectares that is now the Reserve Biologique des Monts d’Azur comprises a myriad of fauna, including red deer, roe deer, golden eagles, chamois, black woodpeckers and black grouse. And yet there is so much more, for this is also home to rare European bison, wild boar, and Pizewalski’s wild horse. This endangered subspecies is native to the steppes of Central Asia, and is the last remaining breed of wild horse in the world.
The mountainous plateau lies at the crux of two different climatic zones, with the Alps to the north and the Mediterranean to the south, making it particularly important for biodiversity. And that was the draw for director Patrice Longour, who purchased the land and buildings ten years ago to fulfil a dream. Patrice had spent the previous ten years working as a vet on a major project in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. He had a desire to launch a reserve in France supporting typical European animals, and yet with an influence of Africa… which is why eco-lodges pepper the land, there are daily safaris by foot or horse and cart, and herbivores live in harmony on the seemingly great plains of the Alpes-Maritime. This privately run project is a work in progress, with biodiversity, sustainability and wildlife conservation at its heart, and funded through tourism. Visitors began arriving in 2008, and the initiative is clearly working, attracting 25,000 a year, including school groups, the children proving particularly receptive to the project.
The Reserve des Monts d’Azur is the only one of its type in Europe, and is proving a blueprint for other projects, including start-ups in the Netherlands, Spain, Romania, Germany, Slovenia and Croatia. Guide Hadrien Aizpuru tells me: “We are happy about that, because this project is important only if it has a more global impact for biodiversity.”
Flanked by mountains, the reserve covers 4km from north from south, and 2km from east to west. Three hundred hectares has been sectioned off for scientific research. The first bison for the project arrived from Poland in 2005, and the Pizewalski horses from Prague. There are currently forty bison in situ, four having been born last spring and two in September. “Normally, the birthing cycle takes place in the spring, but we have noticed more births taking place later in the year, which may well be directly linked to the climatic conditions,” says Hadrien, who originally studied law and political science before being employed at the reserve.
Add to the mix twenty-two Pizewalski, deer and wild boar, and it is as if we are stepping into some prehistoric time warp. “The interaction is good because they are all herbivores,” says Hadrien. “At the beginning we had predatory wolves, but for the past three years we have not found any clues to their presence. Having said that, they are important, for example, for culling of the deer. For me, the presence of a carnivore in an ecosystem is essential for biodiversity.” Large predators, including wolf, lynx and brown bear, were previously wiped out or reduced to residual populations, as with bears in the Pyrenees. Today, France is re-discovering its lost species, with the European wolf making a steady return across the Italian border.
A similar story has been evolving with the European bison. For over twelve centuries, Europe’s largest mammal disappeared from Mediterranean forests. Thanks to the work of people like Patrice Longour, it has made a welcome return. The majority of the public, myself included, have only seen bison in magazines or on film.
To have the opportunity to walk amongst them is a rare privilege indeed. I am pleasantly surprised at how tolerant they are of a human’s presence. If they are not happy to see you, a shake of the head from side to side will tell you, and urinating will also mean they are disturbed by your presence, and it is time to back off. Males weigh in at between 800-1000 kilos and stand 1m80. Females can weigh between 400-600 kilos and stand 1m50.
Patrice Longour is clearly in a reflective mood when we meet for lunch at the reserve. “When I set up this reserve, I felt it was time for France to recover its lost species. Ten years ago we brought two groups of magnificent bison from the forest of Bialowieza in Poland, their last European refuge. At the same time, I acquired several Przewalski horses from various zoos across Europe for release on the Domaine du Haut-Thorenc. Today, this is the only place in Europe where the European bison and the Przewalski horse are living together, sharing the land with deer, chamois, wild boars, foxes and lynx. These animals are once again living wild and free.
“What we have here is a new economic model for rural land, and especially so in the mountains. This is our chance to educate the public into understanding that wild animals are very important for our ecosystem. If you want biodiversity, you need wild animals. We are showing that it is possible to live with wild animals, and this is the only place where you can go on foot and have direct contact with them. This project shows that people can co-exist with them.”
As one of the boldest ecological experiments in Europe, Patrice Longour can be rightly proud of his achievements. And yet Africa remains in his blood. “I go to the bush and it is like being home. Perhaps when I am dead, I will come back as another animal, maybe an elephant.”
- All images © Essential Journeys/Michael Cowton
Reserve Biologique des Monts d’Azur, Domaine du Haut Thorenc, 06750 Thorenc, France
My trip was hosted by the Cote d’Azur Tourist Board (cotedazur-tourism.com)
I travelled by Eurostar from London to Paris, and onwards to Nice. For bookings visit voyages-sncf.com or call 0844 848 5848. Personal callers are welcome at the Voyages-sncf Travel Centre, 193 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EU