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Vanoise National Park

Preserving biodiversity and alpine ecosystems: A look into France's first national park

In 1963, Vanoise National Park was established as France's first national park with the primary aim of safeguarding the Alpine Ibex population, which had decreased to only 50 animals due to excessive hunting. Located in the Tarentaise and Maurienne valleys, the park covers an area of over 530km2 and boasts over 100 peaks above 3000m, including the highest point, Grande Casse, standing at 3855m. The park is crossed by some 500km of hiking trails including the famous Grande Randonnée trails.

Despite being encircled by popular ski resorts like Tignes, Val-d'Isère, Les Arc, and La Plagne, the park has nearly no roads. On its eastern side, it borders Italy, where it merges with the Gran Paradiso National Park, covering a combined area of 1250km2.

The park's ecosystem thrives with flora and fauna, and its protected status has enabled the populations of various species to flourish. The Alpine Ibex, which once numbered 100,000 across Europe, has increased to 1500 animals in the park, and conservation efforts have helped increase their population elsewhere in the French Alps. The park is also home to chamois, marmots, and bearded vultures, and two pairs of the latter bird species can be spotted, thanks to a repopulation program initiated in 1986. The Bearded Vulture was previously regarded with fear and superstition, as people believed that its distinctive orange chest colouration was due to bathing in the blood of its prey. However, this perception is entirely inaccurate, as the vulture's diet primarily consists of bones and marrow, and its striking hue is actually derived from exposure to iron-rich water during grooming.

The park's biodiversity is crucially linked to its pastures, which play a vital role in the ecosystem. The snow-covered pastures in winter transform into lush grasslands and wildflowers in spring, including the Alpine Pansy, Blue Gentian, and Dandelion (from the French Dent de lion or lions tooth). The goats and sheep grazing on these pastures contribute to the unique flavours of the local cheeses, a tradition that dates back to ancient times when people stored the cheeses to eat during the winter months when the valleys were inaccessible due to snow.

The park's idyllic pastures have also caused problems as wolves have migrated to the area and started attacking sheep and goats. Sheep farmers have resorted to kidnapping park authority members and demanding the right to hunt wolves, which are a protected species in Europe. However, wolf hunting in France has increased over the years due to the growing number of attacks on livestock.

Alpine Ibex
Alpine Ibex