The times when Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO) mostly watched and catalogued birds have long since gone. Its mission today is to care for all land-based biodiversity.
If you are fortunate enough to live in France’s South-Eastern department PACA – comprising Provence, the Alps, and the Côte d’Azur – you surely know that it counts among the most biodiverse regions in the world. From the pebbly shores of the turquoise Mediterranean Sea to the snowcapped 3,000 metre peaks of the Alpine range, from the evergreen Provençal landscapes to the vast salt flats of the Camargue, the area is blessed with a rare and unique abundance of flora and fauna.
But someone needs to look after this incredible wealth that Mother Nature bestowed upon this territory of 31,000 km², comparable in size to the US state of Maryland or to Canada’s Vancouver Island. Not only to protect it from exploitation, neglect, and overbuilding, but also to safeguard and nurture it for future generations. And indeed, one organization does step up to the Herculean task: La Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO), a representative and partner of the international non-profit organisation Bird Life, and its regional chapter LPO PACA.
In fact, while LPO was indeed founded in 1912 by and for passionate ornithologists, its name has become a bit of a misnomer over time. From the 1970s on, and notably under its current president Allain Bougrain-Dubourg, it has reoriented its activities to increasingly include terrestrial biodiversity as a whole. Today LPO is an environmental protection organization of global impact with a wide-reaching mission: protecting species; developing and preserving spaces; educating individuals and society about the critical importance of biodiversity to present and future life; sensitizing citizens, businesses and communities; and mobilizing their support.
Hélène Bovalis, vice president of LPO PACA, knows the magnitude of the challenges and realizes that biodiversity is at a historic make-it or break-it point. A jurist by profession, she started getting involved in issues related to eco-diversity on an enterprise level in 2003 when working for the French postal service. Following her retirement she put her expertise in policy-making and cutting through administrative red tape in the service of LPO. No, she says, she does not consider herself an eco-militant but she intrinsically understands what is at stake.
“The South East of France is a hotspot of biodiversity but in the past its richness has not been adequately appreciated. In the 20th century, until the 1970s and 80s, much valuable land and wildlife was destroyed through poor urban and industrial planning, or by thoughtlessly running major traffic arteries through wildlife habitat,” she explains. Humans may well be on top of the food chain but we depend on nature for our survival… on fertile soils and seas, fresh water, and a stable climate. If these are in crisis, humanity is in crisis. And almost needless to say that biodiversity and the climate urgency are interlinked topics which need to be dealt with in a holistic way. The ambitious roadmap is set forth in the Bird Life “EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030” position paper.
Raising awareness for the big and small steps that each individual and each organization can take is one of LPO’s central goals, and it has been seeing some encouraging progress. People become increasingly more conscious of their consumption of resources like water and energy, of their ecological footprint, and of the role even the smallest insect plays in the eco-system. Recycling is now regarded as much more than just an eco-hippie fad. On a communal level, fewer construction permits for shopping centers are issued. Urban development now has to respect existing biotopes. Deforestation is subject to strict rules…
It is important to LPO that education happens on an organic level where everyone can participate. Sometimes it is as simple as “observe the types, numbers, and condition of the birds in your garden and report them in our register.” Sometimes it comes in the form of guided field trips and excursions the organization offers to discover lesser known species of local wildlife. And sometimes there are international events, open to the public, like the IUCN World Conservation Congress (postponed to January 2021 due to the pandemic.)
But for all the good work and laudable progress, something is missing: “We need a Greta Thunberg of biodiversity”, Hélène Bovalis says. “Stepping up in public can be quite daunting but when someone does it and manages to reach people’s hearts, something really shifts in the collective behavior.” But so far there is no one who stands out to champion the cause for terrestrial eco-systems.
Sure, there are personalities like former minister of ecology Nicolas Hulot who now works as a journalist and environmental activist, or photographer and author Yann Arthus-Bertrand who frequently publishes documentaries about ecological issues. And of course the eminent Jane Goodall. But what is really needed is a charismatic figurehead outside the establishment, a savvy social media influencer anywhere in the world who can rally a maximum of people, and especially the young. Nature also has an affinity with art – it could therefore be an artist… and why not someone like Irina Brook, former director of the Théâtre National de Nice, who has already valiantly fought for the protection of the environment for years and, being British, naturally has a few lengths of advance on the slower French way?
There are of course any number of young people who are already ardently committed to the cause: Jennifer Jolicard, a vet nurse, is one of them. Saying that her home, halfway between Cannes and Grasse, is Noah’s Arch is not an overstatement. No animal in need has ever been turned from her doorstep, be it cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, chicken, or even a baby bat.
Right now, she has stacks of boxes all over her house containing hatchlings in need of care. She feeds the animals in her care by hand and round the clock with the dedication of a loving mother. But it takes skill and knowhow to nurse these baby birds. How did they get to her, we want to know? “Well, especially in late spring and early summer, they can often be seen on the ground. Even though now and then one does accidentally fall out of the nest, the majority of the young birds on the ground are just being taught life skills by their parents such as finding food,” Jennifer explains. But well-meaning people, thinking these little ones are injured or rejected, pick them up and try to help them. However, if someone is not experienced at bird care it can often do more harm than good. “My advice: if a bird has just fallen out of its nest, simply put it back in if possible. Otherwise, if the animal is injured, please call our help line at +33 (0)4 90 74 52 44 or look up our tip sheet online.”
But Jennifer’s great ambition is to create a local LPO wildlife care centre. There is one in Buoux in the department of Vaucluse which receives animal patients from PACA, but the two and a half hour drive from the French Riviera is just not practical for caregivers from further away, like Jennifer. Now however, she feels, the cause of biodiversity is picking up momentum, and she hopes to mobilize the Antibes/Cannes agglomeration to help finance her project.
She is therefore currently looking for a suitable piece of land in the area, as well as for investors – ideally private donors or philanthropists, but also corporate sponsors, notably among the businesses at the Sophia Antipolis tech park who have corporate social responsibility programmes.
These centres will also contribute to LPO’s mission of educating the public. “Caring for an animal is good, but learning about its needs is better,” Jennifer reiterates the organization’s philosophy. It starts with children and adults who learn how to identify birds and wildlife, and if interested are taught how to run small private bird refuges, and it continues with veterinarians who generally need to be better trained in bird care. And the final building block of her 360° vision is creating a network connecting all wildlife care centers in France. But for all her passionate engagement, she is quite lucid that not every animal can and will be helped. The criterion, she insists, must be that it can be treated/cured and safely returned to the wild.
Preserving biodiversity is in fact not just an ecological necessity but also an economic one. As just one of many examples, and pertinent to PACA: the world famous perfume industry of Grasse – along with the tourists it draws for this reason – depends almost entirely on the flowers grown in the town’s surrounding fields – lavender, roses, jasmine. These in turn are home to bees, insects, butterflies, birds, lizards, and countless other friendly visitors from the animal kingdom – equally important and valued members of the kaleidoscope that makes up a healthy natural habitat. If this wealth disappears, prosperity goes the same way.
With dynamic and committed people like Hélène Bovalis and Jennifer Jolicard, each channeling their love for nature in productive ways, the future of biodiversity is in good hands… It also has in Allain Bougrain-Dubourg as a formidable LPO president who in 2020 looks back on 35 years in the service of bird protection. All that’s still missing is that elusive “Greta”.
Lead image courtesy and © Brian McInnis; all other photos courtesy LPO