Te Anau: amidst tourists and birds

Te Anau is a small town of barely 2,000 inhabitants situated at the edge of New Zealand’s Fjordland National Park. It is erected along the shores of Lake Te Anau, the second largest lake in New Zealand and largest in Australasia by freshwater volume, and overlooked by Jackson Peaks (1622m), the Kepler Mountains and, further north, by the Murchinson Range.

Life in Te Anau revolves almost exclusively around tourism, which means only Europeans, Asians and North Americans will cross your path in summertime. Indeed, Te Anau is a popular base to access the hyped Milford and Doubtful Sounds by boat, as well as the Routeburn and Hollyford hiking trails by road. Float plane and heli-tours also daily take off from the lake for an aerial exploration of the fjords. But the most remarkable local attraction is the Kepler Track, a 67 km alpine hiking loop that ranks among New Zealand’s nine Great Walks and attracts many hikers from overseas.  Continue reading

Fischland-Darß-Zingst: a land of flats and contrasts

Germany has a small coastline in proportion to its land size. The few seaside resorts found along the North and Baltic Seas are therefore highly prized by the Germans. One of them is the Fischland-Darss-Zingst Peninsula, on the Baltic coast.

Fischland-Darss-Zingst Peninsula

A postcard map of Fischland-Darss-Zingst

This 45km-long peninsula belongs to the Nationalpark Vorpommersche-Boddenlandschaft and is a prime wetland area which attracts many bird species and other wildlife. Situated a 2h train ride from Rostock, in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, this popular destination is a must-see for nature enthusiasts who enjoy a picturesque blend of nature and culture.

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Going up the old salt route to the Col de Fenestre

St-Martin-Vésubie, Mercantour National Park

The Mercantour (core and peripheral area). The area discussed in the present article is contained in the black square.

The numerous trails that criss-cross the Parc National du Mercantour (French Alps) are an open book into the human history of the area. No matter how wild the landscapes they traverse, all are impregnated with tales from the past, nowadays discretely guarded by nature.

Alpine trails connecting France to Italy through the passes, like the one leading up to the Col de Fenestre (2,474 m) from the sanctuary of the Madone de Fenestre (1,904 m), in the Vallée de la Vesubie, have a particularly rich heritage. In the Middle-Ages, merchants travelled this ancient salt trading route from Nice to the Italian Piedmont, and early on the site of the Madone de Fenestre became a religious sanctuary successively held by the Romans, the Black Monks (Order of Saint Benedict), the Templars and the abbey of Borgo San Dalmazzo (Italy). Today, a chapel still stands in the valley where local pilgrims gather every year.

Driving from St-Martin-Vésubie—a traditional alpine village situated 1,000 m above sea level along the outside border of the park’s buffer zone (see first map)—is the only way to reach the Madone de Fenestre, so having a car is preferable. Other options include Continue reading

A first-time exploration of the Mercantour from the town of Roubion (French Alps)

Mercantour - Roubion and surroundings

The Mercantour (core and peripheral area). The area discussed in the present article is contained in the black square.

Created in 1979, the Parc National du Mercantour boasts a unique mixture of nature and culture on its 685 sq km alpine territory made up of six distinctive valleys dominated by mountain tops over 3,000 m. Though omniscient and diverse, the local wilderness has long coexisted with men whose early presence in the area is attested by the scattered remnants of former human activities (rock engravings, chapels, defensive fortifications ruins, military blockhaus, old sheep/cow pens…) and a multitude of hamlets remarkably erected on the steepest slopes of the park’s buffer zone (1,465 sq km). Built in a stair-like fashion amid the lush vegetation, the traditional rock houses give the impression of having literally grown out of the mountain stone. Visitors shall feel amazed at the sighting of such surreal constructions and a little frightened when accessing some of these unconventional dwellings via curvy one-lane roads.

Roubion

View from the end of the road leading to Roubion. Credit: Yalakom

An archetype of such picturesque villages is Roubion. Perched at an altitude of 1,336 m in the Vallée de la Tinée, this charming medieval town of 125 inhabitants makes for an ideal base for those wishing to explore the multiple facets of the Mercantour. Roubion will introduce visitors to the local lifestyle, past and present, while providing easy access to the park’s core area via the hiking trails that run through its narrow, cobbled streets. Refreshing source water feeds Continue reading

The Przewalski horse: overview of reintroduction initiatives (Part 11)

The idea of reintroducing Przewalski horses in the wild in East Asia, their last known historic range, materialized in the late 1970’s and the first release of horses took place in the early 1990’s. As of today, reintroduction was achieved in two out of three and one out of three Mongolian and Chinese proposed sites, respectively.

Hustai National Park Logo

Hustai National Park‘s symbolic logo representing Takhis

Inge and Jan Bouman, together with Mongolian scientist Tserendeleg Jachin, were the pioneers of Takhi reintroduction. They created the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse[1] in Rotterdam in 1977 and launched the Khustain Nuruu Project. It took over a decade to enhance the genetics of Takhis, which had become largely inbred in captivity. In 1991, the Mongolian government established Hustai National Park for the purpose of Takhi reintroduction; it was then approved UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2002. Situated 100 km south-west of Ulaanbataar, the 50,000 ha area (excluding buffer zones and transition areas) was chosen for the quality and abundance of its wildlife. The horses enrolled in the project were bred in Holland and kept in semi-wild reserves where they could freely interact and form social bonds before being flown to Mongolia. Between 1992 and 2000, 84 Takhis aged 3-5 landed at Hustai and the first individuals were released into the wild in the summer of 1994.

Przewalski Horses in the wild at Hustai National Park

Przewalski Horses in the wild at Hustai National Park / Credit: Kelsey Rideout

Nowadays, some 300 horses divided in 30 harems inhabit the park[2]. The objective is to reach a population of 350, which would ensure the sustainability of the species and remains Continue reading

Spotted at the Haus zur Wildnis

While on a recent trip at the Bavarian Forest National Park (BFNP) in southeastern Germany, I visited the Haus zur Wildnis (House of Wilderness)a small zoo situated directly in the forest that keeps lynxes, grey wolves, Przewalski horses and Auroch-type cattle.

Grey Wolf at the Haus zur Wildnis, Germany

Grey Wolf at the Haus zur Wildnis, Germany. Credit: Yalakom

I could spot five grey wolves (Canis lupus) out of 12. The animals are kept in a small 4,5 ha enclosure that appears larger only because the fence is concealed by a natural bush cover. To put things into perspective, in the wild wolf territories can reach hundreds of square kilometers, like in southern and central Europe where typical ranges are comprised between 82 and 243 sq km. Size varies substantially depending on prey density, vegetation type and other factors.

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The Haus zur Wildnis, a zoo in the forest

Erected at the edge of the Bavarian Forest National Park (BFNP) near the town of Ludwigsthal (Germany), the Haus zur Wildnis is a small zoo that keeps lynx, wolves, auroch-looking cattle, and Przewalski horses since 2006. Information about the BFNP, an organic restaurant and lockers are available inside the spacious visitors center, a good starting point for trips into the northern part of the forest known as Falkenstein-Rachel. The Haus zur Wildnis (house of wilderness) is described as a “Tier-Freigelände” and “naturnahe Tierhaltung”, so I imagined it was a reserve or a sanctuary where animals live in semi-wild conditions. In fact, predators are packed in small, fenced pockets of forest and wild horses and auroch-cows are kept in ordinary paddocks, much like farm animals. Not so wild.

I never enjoy observing wild animals confined in man-made habitats because all I see behind the bars is a sterile distortion of nature. It does not get any better when the zoo lies in the woods. The idea of bringing nature to men in a box, even a green one, is a fantasy. Through an illusion of proximity, zoos likely disconnect rather than sensitize visitors to the wilderness because the sightings are so artificial and stranger to the complex realities of nature. Adding patches of green here and there conceals this situation to ensure wider acceptance by the masses but rings as an apology rather than a favor to the animals. Growing up accepting the notion of wildlife captivity as the norm, it seems we already started off on the wrong foot.
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