Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Slow and Steady in Var

I've never owned a tortoise - but if I did I think I would call it 'Gonfaron' - a name that sounds like something from deep Middle Earth.

But Gonfaron is actually a small town in the Var.

Its claim to fame is that it's known as the 'Village des Tortues' - village of tortoises - and it's the only one of its kind in France.

About 30 kilometres from Les Arcs, it is a refuge and breeding area for tortoises before they are released back into the wild.
A damaged Hermann tortoise recently brought in to the clinic.

The Hermann tortoise - Testudo Hermanni Hermann - is the most endangered of all French reptiles.

It used to live along the Mediterranean coast, but with urbanisation, bushfires, removal of habitat and plunder of its eggs, it has retreated to the Massif des Maures (the mountains between Les Arcs and the coast) and Corsica.
The village, established in 1985 by the non-profit organisation SOPTOM, receives about 1000 tortoises a year from individuals, police and customs officers.

Many are brought in with injuries caused by dog bites, being hit by cars or lawn mowers, with various diseases or malnutrition. Around 300 of these need treatment in the clinic.
Madagascan tortoises with their distinctive starburst shells.
There is also a breeding program and so far about 8000 tortoises have been returned to the wild.

The village covers two hectares of maquis provencal - native scrub - made up of cork oaks, wild lavender, rock roses, strawberry trees and chestnuts. There is a clinic, laboratory, a quarantine area, reproduction enclosure, hatchery and nursery as well as a conference and study centre.
Our guide, Armandine, describes the care and rehabilitation of tortoises.
The best way to see the village is with a guided tour. Our guide, Armandine, told us at there were 2500 tortoises at the village at any one time being cared for, raised and studied. And there are many other breeds beside the Hermann tortoise.

The Cistudes or freshwater tortoises of Provence.
We walked along shady wooden walkways between the various enclosures holding tortoises from the Balkans, Russia, Madagascar, Senegal, East Africa and the local 'Cistudes' - or freshwater tortoises - from Provence. The exotic tortoises are not released in France.

Armandine said the tortoises were intelligent and responded to humans, but they were not pets and should not be kept in captivity.

They have been around for 230 million years - long before dinosaurs - and are the earliest vertebrates.

Ideally, they would like to live among abandoned terraces or ancient olive groves, with stone walls for warmth in winter and south-facing slopes for egg-laying. They are not so keen on undergrowth, which restricts movement and is susceptible to fires.

Every visit assists with the protection of the species and sponsorship can even include naming your own tortoise (though I imagine 'Gonfaron' or 'Herman' have already gone).

*SOPTOM - Station d'Observation et de Protection des Tortues et de leur Milieu.


  1. What a very unusual visit! Thanks for sharing!

  2. I was so intrigued, I had to go and see for myself.