A number of wolves are still loose in the southeast of France after the animals escaped during the devastation of Storm Alex, with searches underway and just one wolf having been rescued so far.
The Canadian wolves escaped from the wildlife and wolf park Parc Alpha in the Alpes-Maritimes on October 2, due to the upheaval and damage caused by the violent passage of Storm Alex.
On October 12, one of the wolves was found, in the Mercantour park, close to the Parc.
MP for the Alpes-Maritimes, Eric Ciotti, congratulated the departmental fire service for their help in capturing the wolf safely.
#Mobilisation // Les 4 vétérinaires des #pompiers des #AlpesMaritimes sont mobilisés pour venir en aide aux bêtes victimes de la #tempeteAlex. Ils ont participé à la mission confiée à l'OFB pour les recherches et mises en sécurité des loups du Parc Alpha.— Sapeurs-pompiers 06 (@sdis_06) October 13, 2020
A staff member at Parc Alpha was able to coax the wolf towards the emergency services using her voice, which the animal would have recognised. It was then subdued with a tranquiliser dart, allowing her to be captured safely.
The wolf was in a “good state generally” and was taken by helicopter to an “agreed centre”, along with three other wolves from the park, who had been captured four days earlier, and had managed to escape from their non-electrified enclosure, which was the only one not to be damaged at Parc Alpha during the storm.
Searches are still ongoing for the other six. It is thought that the wolves are likely to be roaming individually, or will have at least separated into more than one pack by now.
The wolves have computer chips embedded. However although this allows for individual identification by the park, the wolves cannot be tracked geographically by them.
Yet, Eric Hansen, of the biodiversity group l'Office français de la biodiversité (OFB), which is monitoring the situation, said: “We know that the pack has broken up.”
This could be because the male or female “alphas” of the group may have died, which would prompt the group to separate. The OFB has had no updates on the alphas in several days.
The separation could also have happened if the wolves have managed to find other packs of wild wolves, possibly in the Italian mountains, the OFB said.
Mr Hansen said: “We found dung from wild wolves. They could have been hostile to the Parc Alpha pack.”
The final hypothesis is that the wolves may have been scared away; gunshot sounds were reported in the town of Saint-Martin-Vésubie - one of the worst-hit areas - which could have caused the wolves to take flight.
The OFB is considering all hypotheses at present, it said.
Searches are continuing in the Vésubie valley, with some residents reporting signs of the wolves, but nothing conclusive coming through so far.
Mr Hansen said: “The roads are very damaged and we are having difficulties intervening quickly on tip-offs. We would need a helicopter to be available all the time, but are forced to manage the situation through our own means.”
The park has also reported that one Arctic wolf is still lost, after two others were killed after their enclosure was carried away by a mudslide during the storm.
Helicopters have been used to search the area where possible.
Mr Hansen said: “The priority is to find them and capture them using hypodermic tranquiliser darts.”
Not all of the wolves at the park escaped due to the storm. There are still some that are safely in the park, and they are “in good health” according to the staff and the OFB.
No danger to humans
The wolves are likely to be staying close to people’s houses to be near to food, even if they have been spotted in more rural areas such as the Turini mountain pass, the OFB said.
Mr Hansen explained: “These wolves have grown up in captivity, so they are opportunists. They have also been used to someone feeding them.
“During the floods and power cuts, people may have emptied their fridges into their gardens, and that can attract wolves. They are not dangerous; they are actually quite fearful. The only danger is if someone tries to capture them.”
A local vet, Véronique Luddeni, who looks after the wolves in the national park of Mercantour, reassured the public that the wolves pose no danger to humans, if they are not provoked or approached.
She said: “They are not going to come to Saint-Martin-Vésubie to eat us. Wolves are intelligent, social animals. There are lots of other animals for them to eat.
“The only danger for them is if they find wild packs; there could be fights between wolves.”
People are warned not to approach the wolves, try to feed them by hand, or go looking for them - and especially not to endanger themselves by approaching areas that were especially damaged by the storm.
The park itself: ‘It’s over’
As for the park itself, its owners say that the storm appears to have destroyed its chances of opening again.
Gaston Franco, founder of the park said: “It’s over for the park. We created it thanks to European funding...but it will not be able to be rebuilt. Around 200 to 300 people have left the valley. It’s done.”
Much of the park’s land was swept away by flooding and most of the enclosures were damaged, according to eyewitness reports.