Battle for future of wildlife

WWF France celebrates its 35th anniversary this year but what challenges does it face?

29 October 2008

The World Wide Fund for Nature is the largest non-government environmental organisation in the world. Its French branch celebrates its 35th birthday this year.

Founded by Julian Huxley (brother of writer Aldous) in 1961, the WWF has more than five million members worldwide and operates from 90 different countries.

Its aim is “to halt and reverse the destruction of our environment” operating in forests, freshwater sites, seas and coast lines.

Rather than running its own hands-on projects, WWF-France helps to fund and organise independent schemes aimed at cutting pollution, improving biodiversity and protecting endangered species.

Since 1977 WWF-France has given financial support to try to protect the brown bear in the Pyrenees. The bear is the rarest mammal in France, with only around 20 thought to live in the mountains.

The group has also worked with the Environment Ministry to reintroduce the Lynx into the Vosges during the 1980s. Nineteen Lynx were introduced, although several have since died, three from illegal hunting. Other ongoing campaigns include those to protect the sturgeon fish and to raise awareness of the harmful effects chemical pollution can have both on the environment and human health.

WWF France will also intervene if necessary with legal action - one such case was over plans for an incinerator in Marseille, where an official enquiry from the WWF resulted in the discovery of a protected species of flower on the site which had not been mentioned in the original survey of the area.

Biologist Christine Sourd, WWF-France's Paris-based programme director, said: “To a great extent we are the whistle blowers when there is an environmental problem.

“We work closely with the government, which provides a great deal of funding and also organisations like Greenpeace and the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux.

“We don't always agree with the government, and much of our work involves lobbying ministers to make sure the environmental agenda is not forgotten in big projects.”

Ms Sourd, who has worked with WWF for 21 years, said the French branch was especially concerned with over-fishing of tuna stocks, protection of Mediterranean whales and dolphins, cleaning up the Loire estuary and protecting the Rhone from chemical pollution.

Much of WWF-France’s funding goes overseas. As part of an international organisation, many of WWF-France’s priorities overlap with those of branches from other countries.

Projects include monitoring wildlife in French Guyana and working to prevent illegal logging in the Congo Basin and Guyana and gold-mining which can damage the environment.

Mrs Sourd added: “We want a system whereby people who go to a jeweller's shop to buy a wedding ring know that the gold comes from a good source - a bit like the AOC system for wine.”

WWF-France has opportunities for volunteer work and Mrs Sourd said getting involved was a good way for expats to learn more about France and to help protect its nature. For more details visit www.wwf.fr

Tuna tagged to chart overfishing

THE French branch of the WWF is organising an ambitious project to tag and follow Mediterranean Tuna - a project that will run for the next three years.

The project, with funding from the Fondation Prince Albert II de Monaco, involves both scientists and fisheries representatives.
Called Sur la Piste du Thon de Méditerranée (on the Trail of the Mediterranean Tuna) the project is focussed around the Balearic Islands where the tuna congregate at the end of summer.

Specimens weighing more than 40kg will be caught, equipped with an electronic tag, and released so observers can chart their migrations.
Dr Pablo Cermeno, head of the WWF's Mediterranean tuna mission, said: “It is scandalous so little is known about this fish, which is threatened with so much - often illegal - overfishing.

“Too much is taken out of the sea for the demanding consumer, and we intend to show how much destruction is actually happening.”
Fishermen whose livelihoods depend on large tuna catches often disagree, saying that there are plenty out there and stocks are not depleting.

However, the WWF estimates that more than 60,000 tonnes of tuna is caught in the western Mediterranean every year.
This is double the amount legally allowed and four times the amount the WWF believes is a sustainable level for the endangered species.

WWF spokesman for Mediterranean fishing policy Serge Tudela said: “When we have accurate data, which these surveys will start giving us over the next two to three years, we will be in a position to put in place a viable plan to save Mediterranean tuna from catastrophic over-exploitation.”

Wolves regain territory from Alps to Pyrenees, to Franche-Comté

WOLVES have been spotted as far as the Pyrénées after creeping across the border from Italy around 15 years ago. They have even been spotted in Franche-Comté, about 400km north of the Mercantour National Park where they were first sighted in 1993.

Wolves were hunted to extinction in France in the 1930s but Italian grey wolves have migrated from the Apennine Mountains which form the long “backbone” of Italy. A spokesman for the Mercantour park, which borders Italy, said there was no reintroduction project - the wolves, looking for terrain in which to roam and hunt, came on their own.

“Ideally we would have liked them to have waited ten years more so that we could have been more prepared for their arrival but we are pleased they are here.

“It proves that the park is a true nature reserve. The Mercantour has proven that it is just the right environment for this beautiful animal to flourish. In many ways that means we are getting it right, and the balance of nature is exerting itself once more.”

The fact the wolves took park authorities unawares has proved problematic and raised some of the age-old fears that led to their extinction. Farmers and shepherds claim they lost 2,200 sheep to the wolves in 2003 - up from 200 in 1994.

The park spokesman added: “We believe, although it is difficult to prove, that the wolves, having exceeded the number that can naturally co-exist in the park, have continued to migrate elsewhere.

“There are reports that they have crossed France, across the Rhone valley, and gone as far as the Pyrenees. The fact that they have done this without any project to help them, is fantastic.”

There are thought to be about 60 wolves living wild in France, most of them in the mountainous south east. Italian wolves are a sub-species of the grey wolf, although slightly smaller than their northern cousins. Males weigh 25 - 40kg (females are slightly smaller).

Their fur colour is grey-brown, although some black specimens have been spotted in Italy. Wolf populations plummeted in the 20th Century, even in Italy, and by the 1970s there were only an estimated 150, living in the Apennines. There were none at all reported in the Alps.

However their number is thought to be increasing at 7% per year. There are now an estimated 650 wolves in Italy. They are nocturnal hunters, feeding mostly on small to medium-sized animals including chamois, deer and wild boar.

Wolves are shy creatures and normally avoid contact with humans, although there have been reports of shepherds being cornered and threatened by packs of the hungry animals.

Paper pandas show sad reality

WWF France continues to find ways to highlight the plight of endangered species. During the summer the organisation placed 1,600 paper maché pandas outside the Hôtel de Ville in Paris to highlight the animals’ dwindling population.

It also drew attention to other species which are facing extinction. WWF France director Serge Orru said the bear was not only a symbol of the group but of the greater loss of species across the planet. “Of course the panda is the most touching, most warm symbol, but the earthworm is just as important,” he said.

According to the latest list published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, one in four mammals, one in eight birds, and a third of amphibians are endangered.

WWF France also encourages youngsters to be aware of environmental issues with programmes such as the annual Journées rivières Vivantes, where thousands of pupils will study around 100 rivers in France and Switzerland.

Some of the country’s most endangered species

1. Mouflon:
This long-horned animal is closely related to sheep. The species is native to most hilly areas in Europe but numbers have dropped. In France they are found in the Pyrenees and in Haute Savoie.

2. Otter:
The number of otters in France reached its lowest in the 1930s and there are now fewer than 100 of the animals in the country. They are mostly found in river systems feeding into the North Sea, English Channel and Atlantic Ocean.

3. Harbour Porpoise:
Found mostly in more northern waters, the harbour porpoise is not hunted but often gets caught in fishermen's nets.
It is one of the smallest ocean mammals.

4. Western Barbastelle:
In summer they live in the eaves of buildings, preferring wooded areas as hunting grounds. In the winter they find caves in which to hibernate.
Native to the whole of France.

5. Garden Dormouse:
Lives in trees, abandoned birds nests and on building roofs, the dormouse hibernates all winter and feeds on the ground at night.

6. Humpback Whale:
Overhunted in the 18th, 19th and early 20th Centuries, the humpback whale, whose natural habitat spans the globe, is struggling to make a significant comeback. The best chances of seeing one would be in the Mediterranean.

Photo: An Italian wolf by Luigi Piccirillo

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