What France magazine say - fourseasonsfrance.co.uk



What France magazine say - fourseasonsfrance.co.uk
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Britain’s best-selling magazine about France
pages of French
food and wine
July 2011 Issue 154
village life
Your guide to
Brittany’s brews
in Normandy
Get away to the idyllic Île de Ré
Activity holiday in Auvergne, weekend break in Nancy, Versailles,
Carol Drinkwater in Provence, Corsica, improve your language
Island hop
Page 49
Animal magic
Why not head to Normandy for a safari with a difference?
Judy Armstrong went to sleep in France and woke up in Africa
Asia, is that given the right care and habitat, they can.
While Cerza cannot simulate the experience of spotting
wildlife on an open savannah, it is equally not a zoo –
no animals are caged. Rather, they live in large
enclosures that are directly proportional to the
territories they would inhabit in the wild. For example,
the enclosure for the little ring-tailed lemur looks about
the same size as the lions’, while the generously
proportioned Indian rhinos have a relatively small field,
with a large pond for mud-wallowing.
There are a number of private zoos in France but
few of them are on this scale. Cerza (Centre, Élevage,
Reproduction, Zoologique, Augeron) covers more than
60 hectares with astonishingly varied habitats, due
partly to the natural topography but also through clever
planting and management. Created in 1986 by brothers
Thierry and Patrick Jardin in a secluded, wooded valley
in the Pays d’Auge near Lisieux, it has evolved into a
conservation centre where the animals take precedence
over everything. A simple example: while the park’s
human-orientated restaurants are a poorly regarded
after-thought, the animals’ kitchen facilities are
extensive and immaculate.
am enjoying a shower in a wooden A-frame lodge,
when my husband Duncan rushes in, excited as a
child. “Quick! Come and look! There’s a rhino
outside!” Of course there is, dear. We’re in Normandy;
why wouldn’t there be a rhino on our doorstep? “No,
there really is a rhinoceros. A white one. I can see it,
just past the monkeys in the trees by the balcony.”
I grab a towel and dash outside. A few metres away,
at eye level, is a family of black siamang gibbons,
swinging arm over arm through a jungle of branches.
Just behind them, in a large field, is an Indian
rhinoceros. He looks prehistoric; armour-plated in
great, careless chunks, his horn lumped lazily onto
a broad, peaceful face. I wave at him. His name is
Albrecht and he is a star resident in the Parc Zoologique
Cerza, Normandy’s answer to Africa.
Pardon? Africa in France? Ridiculous, isn’t it? When
I first heard about the park, my reaction was cynical:
how on earth can France emulate the great safaris of
Africa and Asia? How can species that live in arid
climates, tropical forests or mountainous terrain,
possibly be happy and healthy in Basse-Normandie?
My answer, having experienced safaris in Africa and
ABOVE: Lodges
at the Parc
Cerza close to
the pond where
pelicans live
officer Frédéric
Houssaye chats
with Winona,
an Indian rhino;
A ring-tailed
lemur; Park
restaurant and
A Sri Lankan
gibbons; A lion
and lioness;
Bird's-eye view
from the
balcony of a
The Zoobservatoires
Page 50
Approaching Cerza from the cathedral town of
Lisieux or the pretty village of Cormeilles, you have no
idea that 120 species and more than 700 animals are
within shouting distance. Fields crammed with crops,
traditional Normandy barns and signs offering cider
tastings make the countryside feel completely normal.
Even on the Cerza approach road, the roofs of lodges
poking above the valley sides are the only hint of what’s
in store.
In fact, the self-catering lodges are one of the park’s
highlights. A total of 26 apartments in 13 buildings –
made from sustainable Normandy timber, with solar
panels and a complex water capture scheme – plus six
new A-frame ‘Zoobservatoires’ allow guests to live in
the park. Parma wallabies and muntjac deer roam, like
rabbits, around the lodges and curly-topped pelicans
nest on a large pond near the reception area. While the
Indian rhino and siamang can be seen from some
balconies, the Zoobservatoire A-frames are located right
next to the siamang island. Because the moat acts as a
barrier, this is not an enclosure, so there is nothing to
obstruct the view straight into the gibbons’ lives. It’s
truly special to sit on a wooden balcony in the trees,
with a glass of chilled sauvignon, watching the siamang
family frolic as the sun sets. At the risk of sounding
corny, it honestly does feel like Africa; though obviously
with better wine.
The other essential component of a Cerza visit is
spending time with park staff on a private tour, known
as Safari Privilege. We were fortunate to meet Frédéric
Houssaye, the dedicated young conservation officer.
“My job is to be a link between our 300,000 visitors per
year and the scientists we support in the field,” he
explains. “Cerza gives money to a number of
conservation projects around the world. At the moment
we are working with giraffe in Niger, tapir in South
America, leopard in Sri Lanka, rhino in India, tamarin
in Columbia… It does not cost the eyes from our head,
as we say in France, but it is important money to those
countries and those species.”
Access all areas
He takes us into the park before it opens to the public,
accessing staff-only areas to show us behind the scenes.
“For me, the most important things we can do here are
to reproduce species without in-breeding, to protect
them in the wild to avoid extinction, and to educate
people,” says Frédéric. “We have many school groups
here, and we spend a lot of time teaching, explaining
and demonstrating so that children, and hopefully their
parents too, can learn more about these animals.”
Frédéric takes us to the Indian rhino house where, in
February 2010, Winona gave birth to Manas, the first
Indian rhino born in France. Despite this milestone, in
2014 Manas must leave Cerza to avoid any risk of inbreeding. Frédéric explains the system: “Cerza is a
member of the European Endangered species
Programme (EEP), the European Association of Zoos
and Aquaria (known as Eaza, linking 325 institutions in
35 countries) and the World Association of Zoos and
Aquariums. The mission is to ensure the best welfare for
the animals, education programmes, conservation and
work toward preservation of the species including
structured breeding programmes.
“Every rare or endangered species is managed by
one person from Eaza, who oversees the genetic lines
Page 51
animal in the world”, the Sri Lankan leopard.
It is exquisite. Delicate, immobile, it sits among
bracken and purple foxgloves. After a time it blinks, and
soon seems to melt into the foliage. “I was in India
recently checking on the rhino programme in Manas
National Park,” whispers Frédéric, “and I saw a leopard,
and looked straight in its eyes. For ten minutes we
stared at each other, then slowly it walked backwards
and vanished.” He draws a breath. “It was the most
incredible moment in my life.”
In the same
enclosure as our
leopard is a black
panther. It lies
outstretched on
a branch; brash
against the
leopard’s lithe
Frédéric explains
why different
species are living together. “Here, we have enough
space for big enclosures which allow normal animal
behaviour. We also have mixed enclosures with species
that would naturally mingle in the wild. Of course, this
is France, so we must reproduce habitats – swamp areas
for Indian rhino, wallowing areas for pygmy hippos and
Malaysian tapir, savannah for the giraffes.”
He is the first to admit that it is not exactly the same
as a non-captive environment, but it is as good as
captivity can be. Most of these animals were born in
controlled breeding programmes and some, such as
the white tiger, could not survive in the wild.
The Sri Lankan leopard
is exquisite. Delicate,
immobile, it sits among
bracken and foxgloves
and ensures the destination parks have the right
management, enclosures and programmes. So the
Indian rhino is managed by a man at Basel Zoo in
Switzerland; he sent Winona to us and he will be
responsible for where Manas will live. With our director
Thierry Jardin, I do this job for the Sri Lankan leopard,
so I must know where every leopard is, its genes, how
and where to breed, where the offspring will go. No
money is involved: parks donate or lend animals, but
we never sell them.”
He introduces us to Winona and Manas, who are
spending time in the rhino house to protect the
youngster. They’ll go into their outside enclosure
shortly, but now Frédéric takes advantage of their
proximity to explain their care and routine. He checks
Winona’s teeth, swabs her cheeks and makes sure
everything is in order, before inviting us to carefully and
slowly touch her shoulder. “She is not a pet,” he warns.
“She is not aggressive or dangerous, but you must
always, always take care.”
I reach my hand out and touch her skin. It is
extraordinary: leathery, warm and hard, yet it gives
slightly under my palm. Guided by Frédéric, I tuck my
fingers under a crease in the armour plate and then feel
the skin behind her ears; it is as soft as a breath.
Reluctantly, we move on; time is tight and Frédéric
has much to show us. We pause by the lions’ densely
wooded enclosure, where a lioness stares intently at the
bucket of food in Frédéric’s hand and the male splits the
morning with a mighty roar. We giggle at ring-tailed
lemurs as they dart between trees and bounce on the
ground, their tails in stripy question marks. But our
focus is on Frédéric’s pride and joy, “the most beautiful
Page 52
one evening, with the park virtually empty, we
approach the wolf enclosure. An adult sees us and
slinks away through foliage; in her wake bumbles a tiny
cub, fuzzy and uncoordinated. We stand, still and silent,
and soon more wolves appear, drifting into view like
ghosts in the forest. It is riveting, and intensely private.
On a hot afternoon, we watch a spectacled bear cub
suckle from its mother while a third bear lies on her
back, paws akimbo, soaking up the sun. From behind a
tree we observe white tigers mating, spot a shy yellow
mongoose in daylight and gasp at a golden Burmese
python coiled fat as a tractor tyre.
Meeting a bongo
ABOVE: A rare
Malaysian tapir
having a swim
Our time with Frédéric is up. He has a group of
school children to attend to so we wander on our own.
The park is divided into several parts, including the
African plain (an enormous enclosure where species
including zebra, giraffe, ostrich, white rhino and
scimitar-horned oryx roam), the ‘wild valley’ where
most of the Asian animals live, plus a reptile house,
open aviary and the hands-on area where miniature
goats, pot-bellied pigs and geese mingle with the
visitors. This is endlessly entertaining and is regarded
by many visitors as the top spot in the park.
“When we asked visitors what animals they liked
best: lions, giraffe, monkeys, rhinos? The majority said
the goats because they could stroke them. The joy was
that sensation of direct contact with an animal,” says
Over the course of two days we explore, taking
advantage of the raised, open platforms over the
enclosures for uninterrupted views, sometimes of
animals so rare that they are extinct in the wild. Early
We laugh at a pair of pygmy hippo squelching in a
liquid mud paradise, using their toothbrush tails like
propellers against flies. After a while we realise they,
too, are mating. “Is it rude to watch?” I whisper to
Duncan. “No, it’s educational,” he mutters.
Moving through the park and across the planet,
we discover that there is such an animal as a red
river hog, we meet a mountain bongo, splendid in
a red-gold stripy coat, and watch a rare Malaysian
tapir enjoying an afternoon swim. And in all this time,
after walking miles to admire and learn about more
than 100 animal species, we see just one individual
exhibiting ‘unnatural behaviour’: a gemsbok antelope
pacing a fence.
Now, I am not a zoo person. I disapprove of animals
kept in cages; I once saw a snow leopard going quietly
insane in a dirty concrete pen in Darjeeling, India, and
have never quite got over it. But here in Normandy it
feels like a different world. There is creativity in
management, an intense passion and commitment,
both to the animals that live here and their wild
counterparts. I left with the feeling that it is parks such
as Cerza that will, directly or indirectly, ensure the
survival of some of our world’s rarest creatures.
FRANCOFILE Enjoy your own animal encounter in Normandy
Judy travelled
with P&O Ferries.
Nearest ferry ports
are Caen (70 km)
and Le Havre
Tel: 08716 645 645
Départementale 143
14100 Hermival-les-Vaux
Tel: (Fr) 2 31 62 17 22
The park is open from
February-November. There
are 26 apartments (each
sleeping 6) and 6
Zoobservatoires (each
sleeping 4) at Cerza, open
all year round.
Two nights in a
Zoobservatoire which sleeps
four, costs €260.
There are several tour options,
from guided tours with staff
(Safari Privilege), to feeding
animals and observing wolves.
They are exclusively for
lodge/Zoobservatoire guests.
Closest to the park (4 km away)
is Moyaux, with a crêperie, bar
and shops. It is known for its
crooked church spire. For more
choice in eating and shopping,
head 6 km further to
Cormeilles, a pretty Normandy
town with half-timbered
buildings and hanging flower
baskets. There is a good range
of restaurants (including a
pizzeria that delivers to the
park), bakeries, butchers and
a supermarket, plus a cider
Normandie Tourisme
14 Rue Charles Corbeau
27000 Evreux
Tel: (Fr) 2 32 33 79 00

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