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Camargue: Why is France's natural wildlife paradise threatened by climate change?

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Famed pink flamingoes are seen eating in the partially frozen marshland of the Camargue region near Port Saint Louis du Rhone, southern France, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012.
Famed pink flamingoes are seen eating in the partially frozen marshland of the Camargue region near Port Saint Louis du Rhone, southern France, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012.   -   Copyright  Claude Paris / AP
By Josephine Joly  with AP

Climate change and rising sea levels are threatening the fragile eco-system of France's Camargue, one of Europe's largest wetlands and host to an extraordinary wildlife and vegetation variety.

Located in Southern France and spread over 930 square kilometres, the UNESCO World Heritage site is a natural wildlife paradise.

Hundreds of thousands of migrating birds flock here during the year, including the region's renowned pink flamingoes, perhaps the Camargue's most famous residents.

According to experts, the pink flamingoes might be one of the few survivors that will continue to come to the natural reserve despite the heavy erosion and rising sea levels it will suffer in the coming decades due to climate change.

"For flamingoes, global warming does not change much, flamingoes are nomadic birds, they move at any time of the year," says ornithologist Chloe Romieux-Zerdoun.

But human residents are already seeing the effects of climate change and rising sea levels.

"Since three or four decades, the beaches have decreased, the rocks arrive, the sand decreases. For example, we have a few days, two or three days of snow every year, when before we were never used to seeing it," said Helene Ferullo, resident of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

DOMINIQUE FAGET / AFP
A group of salt-makers collect flower of salt crystals in the salt marshes of Aigues-Mortes on 10 August 2001.DOMINIQUE FAGET / AFP

Rising sea levels will endanger Camargue's unique eco-system

The Camargue is also famous for its natural salt production drawn from its one-of-a-kind pink lakes that comes from the high concentration of salt in the water, giving it its colour.

The salt is harvested and stashed in tall white and grey mountains. The region produces around 500,000 tons of salt per year.

However, the rise in sea levels will cause irreversible changes in the Camargue ecosystem, with high tides altering salt production, as well as the properties of the famous Camargue rice, unique for its red colour and natural nutty flavour, and also the amount of grass in the meadows.

GERARD JULIEN / AFP
Bulls are leading to a ranch in Saintes-Antoine-de-la-Mer, in the Camargue, southern France on April 22, 2009.GERARD JULIEN / AFP

Aurelie Raynaud, whose family breeds the Camargue's semi-wild bulls famous for their black fur and oversized horns, says the effects of climate change are already noticeable.

"Our breeding of Camargue bulls has been based here since 1950 and we are seeing many effects of the advancing of the sea and of the salinity of the soil. As the soil becomes saltier, the grass grows less, so we lose the quality of our grazing land and we have to give much more hay," Raynaud reveals.

"Financially as well it is more difficult. The sea advances, the coastal line does too, and it provokes tidal waves which leave a lot of salt during winters - and then we know that at the next spring we will have less grass again," she says.

Shorelines and coastal towns threatened by stronger storms

Ocean levels are going up and up, and artificial barriers currently protecting the coast will not be able to withstand it, threatening to endanger the shoreline and local towns.

According to coastal geomorphology professor Francois Sabatier, man-made barriers currently in place to protect the shorelines will be unable to counter the effects of large storms.

"What we know is that in this area the sea level is going to move up, by more or less one metre by the end of this century, and the storms probably are not going to be stronger, but the thing is that if you increase the sea level, then, of course, you increase the elevation of the waves," he explains.

GERARD JULIEN / AFP
Aerial view taken on 04 December 2003, of the sea submerging the lands of the Rhone delta in the Camargue regional park following the heavy rainfall of the last few days.GERARD JULIEN / AFP

"If today the waves during storms are close to more or less two metres of elevation, at the end of the century they will be around three metres. So it means that the medium storms today are going to be strongest at the end of this century," he adds.

DOMINIQUE FAGET / AFP
Aerial view taken on 26 November 2002 of the flooding of the Petit Rhône at Saint-Gilles, in the Camargue, following the rupture of a breach.DOMINIQUE FAGET / AFP

Scientists at the European Union's Joint Research Centre in Italy, say that half of the world's sandy beaches could disappear by the end of the century if climate change continues unchecked.

The study's authors calculated that up to 40% of shoreline retreat could be prevented by reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change, but said that large and growing populations living along the coast will also need to be protected through other measures.