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Photo essay: Ramsar study tour
to the Camargue, 2001

The Camargue in southern France, part of the delta of the Rhône river into the Mediterranean, is one of Europe's greatest wetlands, and certainly one of its best-managed wetlands. And it's also the home of the Station Biologique de la Tour du Valat, an extensive research facility that not only studies the Camargue and manages parts of it, but also engages in far-flung research elsewhere and advises governments and intergovernmental instruments on sound science concerning wetlands, and also serves as one of the three technical camargue1fa.jpg (14109 bytes)components for the Ramsar Convention's MedWet Initiative (along with the Greek Wetland/Biotope Centre in Greece and SEHUMED in Valencia, Spain).

(left) Ramsar interns studying wetland conservation with Jean-Paul Taris, head  of Tour du Valat.

No wonder, then, that Ramsar Bureau staff and friends should wish to investigate what's really going on down there. And finally to meet their Tour du Valat colleagues in person! Thus at the weekend of 15-17 June, quite a few Ramsar people hurtled southward from Switzerland to try to verify some of these previously disembodied reports and guidelines. They were ably organized by Dr Tobias Salathé, the Bureau's Coordinator for Europe, who just luckily has recently come to us from the Tour du Valat and happens also to be a superb study tour organizer.

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Following a long drive and an informative tour round the Tour du Valat facilities, the Tour du Valat laid on a superb Friday evening dinner in a fledgling "bio-restaurant" in a restored traditional Camarguian set of farm buildings, over seven hundred courses of really interesting-looking things (with eggplants and bull sausages, etc.) that needed continuous commentary from the managers.

Photo: Inga Racinska and Marco Flores of Ramsar, closest to the digicam, and Dr Jean-Paul Taris, who arranged the happy occasion, seeking second helpings farther down the table.

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At the second table, Ramsar's Annette Keller entertains Tour du Valat folks, particularly Alan Johnson, the flamingo expert on the right who subsequently (Saturday) explained the whole thing about successfully building fake nesting islands to bring the flamingos back and what not.

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Dr Max Finlayson of the Environmental Research Institute of the Supervising Scientist (the what?!?) in Australia, who is sometimes referred to as Ramsar's "science engine", and who happened to be -- happened to be?? -- residing at the Tour du Valat at the time (reading over his agenda papers for the 10th meeting of the Ramsar STRP in Switzerland, and preparing his rebuttals), seen with Lisa Durham and (turned away) Ammy Gillesberg at the traditional bio-dinner.

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Sandra Hails (Ramsar) hectoring Max Finlayson about wetland functions and values, relative to bull sausages in the Camargue; Tour du Valat's Jean Jalbert in the reddish shirt.

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Ramsar's Secretary General tries out traditional Camargue bio-specialities energetically.

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Tour du Valat director Jean-Paul Taris toasts Ramsar interns in an extremely welcoming and hospitable manner.

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Watching, incredulous, as people try to eat bull sausages down at the end of the table, after all the eggplant quiche and asparagus nibbles and broccoli tarts and Great Big Lamb Chops.

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Saturday morning, a view of Arles from the amphitheatre (Photo: Sandra Hails)

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The amphitheatre in Arles, photographed by Sandra whilst planning lunch.

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Ramsar Bureau staff, recalling the Convention's origins in waterbird conservation, seek flamingos. The lady on the right is doing pre-Raphaelite instead.

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Whoops, there are the flamingos, just as promised. Standing there in the water, looking downwards. With some purpose in view no doubt. (Might make great mine detectors perhaps.)

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Here's the obligatory generic wetland shot: "Camargue, France (Photo: Sandra Hails)"

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Very serious bird watching in prospect: Ramsar knows how to focus its efforts singlemindedly until the goal has been achieved. In this case, however, the birds had already moved on, so the gear went back into the car, and so did staff.

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Tobias Salathé, an extraordinary teacher, leads the walk round the La Capelière nature reserve in the Camargue and pauses frequently to explain all the nuances about both the wildlife and the management techniques being employed.

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Ramsar UFO-Watchers hoping that this one will be the Big One. Enough of those grainy cigar photos -- with this equipment we ought to be able to get the definitive story on alien invasive species from outer space. (On this occasion, though, they landed, checked us out for a few moments, and then left again.)

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Way out on some force-fed salines, which took most of the life out of our automobiles' shock absorbers, Dr Salathé refers to a map in an effort to explain why all the birds are off nesting and feeding their young and occupying their time with canasta at some other place, but not here, until next Tuesday.

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An extremely tasty dinner in a semi-ramshackle fresh seafood restaurant serving traditional Camargue specialities, apparently semi-legally, where Ramsar staff and like-minded wetland enthusiasts chewed and swilled until a fire broke out in nearby caravans and everybody could think of some other peninsula they'd rather be on soon.

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Sunday morning: ferry across the Rhône, Ramsar staff and friends making like this is some big deal, crossing a river, oh wow.

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A Sunday visit to the Marais de Vigueirat protected area on the eastern side of the Rhône -- it begins somewhat ominously: "BULLS, close the gate please"!!

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The Marais de Vigueirat boasts superb wetland education facilities, and Jean-Laurent Lucchesi demonstrates the electronic Webcam facilities (teensy cameras out there in the nests, you can watch them hatch while standing right here next to the Coke machine) and leads the Bureau staff on a tour of the educational learn-by-doing nature path through part of the wetland. Ammy Gillesberg, Ramsar friend from IUCN, left.

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This display is meant to let you experience what it's like to part reeds in a swamp. Well, okay. Some of the other interactive stations seem to reach more deeply into our daily lives than that one does.

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Time to go home. Dr Salathe explains the complex management situation at the Crau Mediterranean steppe area above the Camargue, then leads us all along to Les Baux medieval tourist village and a restorative pause whilst Dr Keith Kennedy (pink shirt) finessed some fine wine purchases, and then a tortuous circuit out onto the French autoroute for a thunderstorm-filled trip home to Geneva. Exceptional weekend all the way round.

We've also got lots of tourist photos of the famous Camargue white horses, and of course plenty of shots of the famous bulls, and gazillions more of those flamingos looking morosely down hoping dinner will wander along without noticing all the looming flamingos. Hundreds of megabytes worth, but bandwidth problems intervene, so the Ramsar public will have to be content with what's here. In any case, Camargue white horses look like white horses, so we wouldn't be helping you out very much by putting them up here.

For further information about the Convention on Wetlands, please contact the Ramsar Convention Bureau, Rue Mauverney 28, CH-1196 Gland, Switzerland (tel +41 22 999 0170, fax +41 22 999 0169, e-mail ). Posted 11 July 2001, Dwight Peck, Ramsar.

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