Mercantour national park, south-east of France, is well known for its wildlife and beautiful landscapes. Those who love hiking in mountainous areas will spend enjoyable moments there, especially the sporty ones. However, France in general does not exhibit, like in other countries, hardy and “easy” to spot big wild animals (or maybe they just don’t like me!). You can spend hours walking on narrow steep paths, before seeing any local creature, that will flee before you anyway. Many workshops for non-professional photographers exist, which will show you the best locations to see wildlife and teach you how you can avoid ending up (like me, always) exhausted and frustrated by a day of hiking, without a single worthwhile shot. They are however often expensive and require social interactions (I know, right?!). And if you really want to see unusual things, you will end up in a group tour which involves camping. Thus, if you are a nerdy indoor photograph, who hates ending a day without a proper shower, Park Alpha is made for you!
One hour and a half drive from Nice (on a beautiful hilly road), Park Alpha is located near Saint-Martin-Vésubie, a small town not far from the Italian border. More than a simple zoo, it is an open-air museum about wolves, that tries to educate people about how predators are essential to ecosystems. The park hosts three different wolf packs in delimited areas. The animals can be seen thanks to well-located lookouts equipped with large windows.
Feared, hated and hunted during the past centuries, wolf has gone extinct for decades in France. Now a protected species, a few individuals have migrated from Italia through the border, and are back in Mercantour. The park explains how this whole process happened and answers concerns from some locals, who fear the animal may harm breeding activities.
Veterinary strategies are also described: how the wolves are fed, how the park tries not to meddle with their wild animals’ behaviours, how to deal with the “semi-captive” condition… There is a lot to learn and you usually find many families and school groups visiting the place.
However, there is a price to pay. The lookouts can be very crowded and random people will often jump right in front of you while you desperately try to take pictures at the right angle to avoid the weird reflections on the windows from the bright pink person next to you. Wolves’ delimited areas are not very big, and this adds to the feeling that you are, after all, in a zoo. Moreover, feeding times allow people to see the animals from very close (it’s at least smartphone-friendly!), but this leaves a strange impression… Sometimes, a whole pack just waits there, in front of the windows, and one of the wolves puts their legs on it to see if there is something inside the lookout. Plus the children shouting…
Now, some advices:
- Very long focal lengths lenses are not needed! Wolves often come very close to the windows; however, having a zoom lens is I think a huge advantage, as they tend to run back and forth through the trees.
- Glass windows have strong reflexions; do not hesitate to change location from time to time as some of the lookouts are more suited than others depending on the time of the day.
Autofocus performance could also be somehow affected by the thick glass, and the whole shooting experience can become infuriating!
- Do not visit the park during holidays and week-ends! The place is not meant to be shared between tourists and photographs (ok, this could be expected from a park…).
At this point, I don’t know if the conclusion of this article should not be “GO HIKING YOU IDIOT”.
Another children friendly zone, outside the wolves’ area: you will find near the park exit a small house with farm animals and some workshops organised from time to time.
A very nice restaurant (serving local “mountain food”) is located near the place where you buy park tickets; if you plan to lunch there, be careful: once you leave the park, you cannot enter anymore. Entrance fee is quite low (10€ or less) and you can buy joint tickets with another natural park called “Haut-Thorenc” which will be the subject of a future article.
And if, in the end, you like hiking, do not hesitate to wander into the forest nearby to observe the “real” wildlife!