French Region Saves Iconic White Storks From Brink

Gérard Wey, head of the Association for the Protection and Reintroduction of Storks in Alsace and Lorraine, holds a young stork he has just banded. The program he heads has been responsible for the birds' remarkable comeback.
Gérard Wey, head of the Association for the Protection and Reintroduction of Storks in Alsace and Lorraine, holds a young stork he has just banded. The program he heads has been responsible for the birds' remarkable comeback. (Photos By Molly E. Moore -- The Washington Post)
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By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 22, 2008

MUNSTER, France -- This is a village with a dual population -- humans live in charming medieval houses; white storks and their half-ton nests rule the rooftops.

Gérard Wey, known in these parts as Papa Stork, is the emissary between man and bird. If an anxious villager reports a stork in danger, Wey and his crews rush to the scene. If the birds stage too large a takeover, he's there to remove some nests.

For Wey, the gray-bearded director of the Association for the Protection and Reintroduction of Storks in Alsace and Lorraine, the birds that now dominate Munster's skyline represent a comeback story infused with as much symbolism as the bald eagle's return from near-extinction in the United States.

Twenty-five years ago, the iconic emblem of Alsace -- a bird revered for centuries as the bringer of fertility and luck to any home where it nested -- had dwindled to fewer than nine pairs in the entire upper Rhine River Valley. Though flocks of the white storks resided elsewhere in the world, they had all but disappeared from the region most closely identified with them.

Today, one of the most successful repopulation programs of its kind has restored the beloved white stork to the Alsace and Lorraine region, with at least 270 pairs nesting this year on the roofs and treetops of its picturesque villages.

"What's important to me is keeping a species from disappearing in an area where people identified so closely with that species," Wey said. But he quickly added: "Safety comes first. If it means we have to get rid of a nest, we will. We have to manage the population. Man is part of the environment, too."

Nowhere is the balance more delicate than in Munster, also known for its smelly cheeses. The first pair of storks returned to Munster in 1988, five years after France launched the repopulation program. This year, white storks have built 23 nests here. Five balance atop the chimneys and roofs of a single building in the town center -- a former monastery that now houses a kindergarten. Wey estimated that the tiny town can safely accommodate no more than 14 nests, and his crews have begun removing some.

"If one day a nest falls on a kid and kills him, no one will want to protect the storks," he said.

But the villagers of Munster are fiercely protective of the leggy, long-necked birds.

Last winter, when Wey and his assistants dismantled a dangerous nest on a roof three stories above a busy restaurant, a woman telephoned his office and threatened to call the police on him.

Few wild creatures are as dependent for survival as the white storks of Alsace on a close equilibrium with humans, according to Wey.

Unlike storks that live in wild, natural environments in other parts of the world, including some white storks, the storks of Alsace have lived among their human protectors for centuries.


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