The French Riviera (or, as it’s called in France, the “Côte d’Azur”), isn’t exactly known for its triumphs in wildlife conservation. Names like Nice, Cannes and Antibes are famous worldwide both for their warm Mediterranean climates and for their wealth- of money as well as culture. Yet not an hour’s drive from the yachts and beaches and film festivals, in the Sea-Alps that stand just beyond the coast, is one of the most unique examples of conservation in all of Europe: an ecological reserve where animals extinct in France for hundreds, if not thousands, of years are slowly being reintroduced to their ancestral habitats. Its name is the Réserve Des Monts D’Azur, and it may just be the start of a radical change to come for conservation as a whole.
Much like in the States, overhunting, competition for resources and the destruction of natural habitats by Europeans has overtime decimated the populations of animals native to France, Germany, England and Spain. Whereas once bears, wolves, horses and even bison roamed the continent freely, now many of these animals exist only in isolated and threatened pockets– or are absent entirely. The latter is the case of the European Bison and the Przewalkski Horse, species that both were once abundant in France, only to become extinct entirely in the country by the 19th century. For over a century these animals existed only in captivity or in small, endangered populations in Eastern Europe and Asia, and were at risk of being taken from the world entirely. That is, until several dedicated conversationalists decided to take action.
The Réserve Des Monts D’Azur is the result of two of these conversationalists, Patrice Longour and Daneil Baubet, French veterinarians who have succeeded in transforming an area of underused farmland into a protected habitat where European Bison and Prezewalski Horses can once again live together- the first and only place in the entirety of Europe where this occurs. Their mission: to create an environment that not only allows for these animals to be reintroduced into their historical habitats, but also serves as an educational experience for visitors to witness firsthand how these animals can adapt to, change, and most of all self-sustain the ecosystem around them without any form of human intervention.
To that end, the Réserve Des Montes d’Azur isn’t just 350 hectacres of monitored, protected land dedicated to reintroducing Bison and Prezewalski horses to their historic habitats. It is also a center for ecotourism, in which visitors can stay overnight in special ecolodges, cook their own food and vegetables over a charcoal grill and get a closer look at the unique wildlife of the reserve through walking and carriage tours. The hope is that these “ecotourists” will learn both about the animals of the preserve and their place in the natural environment of France as well as sustainable methods of using natural resources, minimal-impact lodging and alternative forms of transportation.
Wildlife Conservation: The European Bison
Thousands of years ago, before the land bridge uniting Europe and the Americas disappeared, the ancestor to today’s American bison roamed not only the Great Plains of the states, but also the dense forests of today’s Poland, Germany, and France. When the land bridge vanished and the Berring Straight formed, the two now separated populations began to diverge until they eventually became new species.
Whereas American bison are typically short, broad and heavy, ideal for the open plains of the American west, European bison evolved in the dense forests of prehistoric Europe, and thus became lighter, slimmer, and taller, more able to navigate the spaces between trees and reach higher branches for food. Today’s European bison stand at between 5’5 and 5’9 feet, and weigh in between 1300 and 2000 pounds, with males at the higher ends of both spectrums. American bison, meanwhile, are typically 100-200 lbs heavier (although they can grow to up to 3,000 lbs), and stand a few inches shorter at the shoulder than their European cousins.
Yet, in a story all to similar to that of the American bison, the European bison was brought to the edge of extinction by hunting and displacement. As logging brought along by the Industrial Revolution destroyed the forests these bison thrived in and overhunting decimated their populations, the European bison were slowly eradicated from Western, and later Central and much of Eastern Europe until, in the 1920s, only some 54 bison remained, all within the Białowieża forest in Poland.
Of these 54, only 13 were able to reproduce, placing the European Bison at knife’s edge of extinction. Fearful of the species’ complete disappearance, conservationists of the time successfully brought the entire remaining population of bison in Europe- at the time, consisting of only two surviving herds- and placed them in captivity. From there, they began a breeding program intent on bringing the bison back from the brink.
Today, there are around 1800 bison in Europe, and all 1800 of them derive from these 13 fertile individuals. The Réserve in particular began its own breeding program with seven European bison- four males and three females- that has since become a population of 45, Three-quarters of which were born on the reservation itself. Yet of the 1800 bison left in Europe, 1400 still exist in captivity, or in monitored, closed- in environments like the Réserve itself. Part of the purpose of the Réserve is not only to breed the European bison but also to begin to readapt them to the wild, in the Réserve’s case the mountains of France, of which they have not roamed for hundreds of years.
The Réserve hopes too to show visitors how these bison can in fact change and sustain an ecosystem outside of human intervention. For instance, by rubbing up against trees and, in the process, killing them, the Bison allow for undergrowth and smaller trees to come in and take their place, contributing to the cycle of renewal that results in healthy, self-sustaining forests.
Wildlife Conservation: Przewalkski’s Horse
Named after the Russian scientist and explorer responsible for their rediscovery, Nikolai Przewalksi, Przewalksi’s horse- also known as the Dzungarian horse- once, much like the European Bison, roamed the forests of Western Europe, with a history stretching back to the Paleolithic era. Cave paintings as old as 30,000 years in France and Germany are thought depict this very species, which possessed a wild, individual nature that prevented them from being captured and tamed. Unfortunately, it is this very wild streak that caused their near extinction, with the last individual being killed in 1814 in east Germany.
It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that these horses were re-discovered, not in the still-forested regions of Eastern Europe, nor even further east in the Russian Urals, but in the steppes of Mongolia, where they had retreated in order escape the rapid overhunting of Europe. This population, however, was also at risk of extinction, and in 1901 52 baby horses- the adults being too wild to contain- were captured and brought to zoos in Europe.
Of those 52 horses, only 28 made it to Europe alive, and only 11 of these were able to reproduce. These 11 horses, now the last reproducing members of their kind in the entire world, would go on to serve as the genetic foundation of the entire species throughout the 20th century.
Unlike the careful breeding programs that led to the reemergence of the European bison, inbreeding amongst Przewalksi’s horse was never checked, nor were there attempts to re-introduce the species to their natural habitat. The results were rampant genetic problems- the most prominent of which being a weak bone structure, especially in the skull- and a near complete lost of the natural instincts required to survive in the wild.
In 2004 and 2005, the Réserve acquired seven of these horses as part of a program to re-introduce these famously little (never growing taller than four and a half feet) horses to the wild. The effort would prove a difficult one. Generations in captivity caused the horses to loose even the most basic of natural skills, such as the formation of harems, which they had to be re-taught. Conflicts with other wild animals- especially the park’s Bison population- also arose when the horses were first introduced to the park, the horses having lost even their ability to interact with other wild animals.
While genetic problems still plague Przewalski’s horse, over the past decade or so the natural instincts of the park’s population have begun to re-emerge. Now over 20 strong, the horses have begun re-forming harems with sizes ranging from four to seven horses. An “exile” group of about five males who weren’t able to form their own harems has also developed, much as it would in the wild.
In 2015, three baby horses were born, growing the park’s number to 22, with more expected to come in 2016.
Deer, Boar, and Wolves
Many other animals, though not part of the park’s breeding programs, inhabit both the wild and semi-wild portions of the park. Deer are abundant, with herds mingling with bison and horses around the park’s watering hole, as are boars, who burrow under the fences dividing the wild part of the park from the semi-wild. The boars in particular, though welcome, have become an issue for the park, as their ever-increasing numbers causes competition with the bison and horses for food. The Réserve’s solution for this is to install hanging “barrels” which distribute tiny portions of food at intervals, encouraging the boars to rely on these little “gifts” for food rather than consuming the roots and plants that other animals also live on.
Wolves also occasionally visit the park, following boar tunnels underneath the fences or jumping over them when particular large snowdrifts allow. Instead of worrying about these wolves, the park in fact welcomes them. The horses and bison the park protects, they explain, are too aggressive and able to defend themselves as compared to easier prey, like boars and deer, which already are too prevalent in the Réserve. In fact, many of the park staff expressed a desire for more wolves, to better contain the boar and deer populations and allow for a second, smaller species of deer- know as “Roe’s deer”- to better flourish, as at present their numbers remain small due to competition for resources by their larger cousins.
A Site Worth Visiting
We managed to experience the Réserve first-hand, and even managed to stay in one of the park’s “Ecolodges” for a night. Come dark, here atop the Sea Alps, the lights of Cannes and Nice- just over an hour or two away by car- are nonexistent, and the stars shine as bright as they would in any natural park in the western United States. When you lay down your head to sleep, the sound of bison shuffling and snorting carries through the otherwise still night, and if you didn’t know better, you’d think yourself to be in Yellowstone or Yosemite.
France, and Europe as a whole, may not have the reputation that the States has for conservation, but small, quiet projects such as the Réserve prove that even in a country known more for its cities than its woods, wild places can still exist and flourish side-by-side with humans. With luck, the future of Europe may have many more places like this park, and many more opportunities for animals once on the verge of extinction to make a long-awaited comeback. Until then, the Réserve Des Monts D’Azur serves as a benchmark for small-scale conservation, and for the ability for average people to catch just the smallest glimpse of the way Europe once was, back when it was still wild and untamed.
- Video Tour of the Reserve
Article by Devin Windelspecht. Devin is a sophomore at Northeastern University in Boston MA where he majors in international affairs.
Photography by Sydne Mass. Sydne is a sophomore journalism and photography student at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. Visit her blog at sydnemassphotography.