In the Tortoise Village, a couple of minutes away from the village of Gonfaron by the plain of the Maures, 2500 inhabitants crawl, swim, or snooze in the sun. Their carapaces or upper part of their shells appear like brown sea-shells locked together like a puzzle.
In the village's "Institut Mérieux" clinic, a few turtles stay put in their cubicles as they recover from the bites of dogs, the crush of car wheels or the slicing blades of lawn-mowers. When a turtle's carapace is ripped, the clinic repairs it with a mesh of flexible glass fiber and with polyester glue.
The clinic takes care of more than 300 ill tortoises a year, each one brought by individuals, police or customs. The entire village welcomes more than 1000 new chelonians each year, ill ones and healthy ones too. As the Village makes clear throughout its park-like setting, its goal is always to release the animals back into the wild.
While the tortoises abound in the village, they are threatened animals outside the perimeters of this tortoise park. They are hunted by humans for their flesh and for their shells; they are hunted by dogs and rats while they hibernate; they are losing their natural environment to urbanization and in the Maures, to forest fires.
The most endangered French reptile is the Hermann Tortoise (Testudo hermanni hermani). Once alive all around the Mediterranean coastal belt, the Hermann tortoise now survives in an narrow stretch of forest in the Maures Mountain Range and in Corsica. It was to save the Hermann tortoise from extinction that the SOPTOM, a non-profit organization for the safeguard of turtles and tortoises, created the Tortoise Village in 1988. Since its creation, the village has releases over 8000 Hermann tortoises into the Maures. Today, the Village welcomes Leopard tortoises, Corsica tortoises, Greek tortoises, freshwater "cistudes", Marginated tortoises, Balkan tortoises, Russian tortoises and the tortoise from Madagascar
The Village is a tool to fight the extinction of tortoises, but it is also a lively and enthralling means to teach history. It takes you through a walking history tour of the ancient creature, from 300 Million years ago until today. Plastic turtles the size of a fridge lurk behind the panels that tell their story. A mere 250 million years ago lived the Proganochelys, the first reptile considered a turtle with its ribs fused against it carapace. A ghostly roar hums by the plastic giant Proganochelys. Kids shriek and get a little closer to their parents.
You may well encounter a Hermann Tortoise "in the wild," on your walks in the Maures. Chances are that it would have transited through Gonfaron's Tortoise Village or possibly been born there.
And if you don't spot one strolling around the countryside, you can always visit the Tortoise Village. The village attracts plenty of families eager for a way to learn more about this pre-historic animal or just looking for a fun afternoon.
Check out the Tortoise Village at: http://www.villagetortues.com/
While visiting around Gonfaron, why not take a hike and discover more about the region?
Get your hands on a thoroughly tested hiking guide to the Western Côte d'Azur (on sale now on Amazon!), click here.