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

Why not head to Normandy for a safari with a difference? Judy Armstrong went to sleep in France and woke up in AfricaI 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 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, �levage, 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.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 Fr�d�ric 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 areasHe 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 Fr�d�ric. “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.”Fr�d�ric 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 in-breeding. Fr�d�ric 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 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 Fr�d�ric 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 Fr�d�ric, 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 Fr�d�ric has much to show us. We pause by the lions’ densely wooded enclosure, where a lioness stares intently at the bucket of food in Fr�d�ric’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 Fr�d�ric’s pride and joy, “the most beautiful 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 Fr�d�ric, “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 minimalism. Fr�d�ric 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.Our time with Fr�d�ric 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 Fr�d�ric.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 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

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.

FRANCOFILEHow to get there: Judy travelled with P&O Ferries. Nearest ferry ports are Caen (70 km) and Le Havre (65km) Tel: 08716 645 645

Parc Zoologique CerzaD�partementale 14314100 Hermival-les-VauxTel: (Fr) 2 31 62 17 22 www.cerza.comThe 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. IN THE AREA Closest to the park (4 km away) is Moyaux, with a cr�perie, 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 distillery.

Tourist information: Normandie Tourisme14 Rue Charles Corbeau27000 EvreuxTel: (Fr) 2 32 33 79