A local councillor checking water flow at a canal near an Alpine village in southern France was shocked after being threatened by five wolves as he walked alone.
It is the first such recorded incident since wolves reappeared in France in the 1990s.
Wolves may have felt trapped
Experts conclude that it was most likely due to the “very particular” layout of the area, featuring a single path with a cliff to one side and a slope with impenetrable vegetation to the other, causing the wolves to feel trapped.
Joseph Uto, a former soldier in his fifties, had set out mid-morning along a canal to see why the flow of water had dropped.
He is part of an association that looks after the canal, which provides water to the village.
Wolves advanced, snarling and growling
When he was around three kilometres from the village of Castellet-lès-Sausses in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence (at the border of Alpes-Maritimes), he saw two wolves watching him from a ridge about 200 metres away.
He shouted at them but instead of fleeing, as wolves usually do, they began moving closer.
When the wolves were 50 metres away, he saw there were five of them and they began growling. He threw stones, which they dodged.
He then took out a machete he used for clearing undergrowth in the canal and backed against a cliff so he could not be surrounded as the wolves advanced, snarling and growling.
They were led by a large female and she appeared to move in to attack, from seven metres away.
Mr Uto hit her on the hindquarters with the machete, not knowing if it was with the blade or blunt part.
This caused the wolf to flee, followed by the others.
Mr Uto does not want them hunted down
Mayor Claude Camilleri said: “He told me it was about 10 minutes in all and his blood ran cold.
“He is fairly young and able to defend himself but he says he is worried what might have happened if other, older, members of the association faced the same situation.”
Mr Camilleri said the village was nevertheless calm.
“We have had wolves in the area for a while now. They are a menace for sheep farmers, and have attacked some dogs, but people know it is exceptional for them to attack humans.
“Mr Uto himself says he does not want them hunted down.”
Wolves cannot be shot without government approval
France’s biodiversity agency OFB has investigated. It said: “Just one wolf showed intimidatory behaviour, without looking to bite or throw itself at the man.
“In the absence of another path, it is very likely the canine wanted to force its way through.
“Without an escape route, wolves, like any wild mammal, can be dangerous.”
Wolves are a protected species and can only be shot in exceptional cases and with government approval. There are around 128 packs in France, mainly in the Alps.
They were once found all over the country but were hunted to extinction in France by the early 20th century. Emmanuel Gastaud, spokesman for the Parc national du Mercantour, said wolves avoid people.
“It is extremely rare that they attack humans. You have to look in parish records going back hundreds of years to find attacks.”
What to do if you come across a wolf
If you do come across a wolf, stay calm and do not run away, said Antje Henkelmann, project manager for wolf conservation at NGO EuroNatur.
“Appear self-confident. If the wolf does not retreat, speak loudly or clap your hands.
“If the wolf approaches you, stop and make yourself look big. Move towards the animal, rather than away from it.
“Make a noise and try to intimidate the animal by waving clothes and sticks and throwing things at it.”