Sauve, France - A siren wails and a powerful bull hurtles from a pen, sending a thrill of anticipation through the crowd of villagers swollen by curious summer tourists.
Skilled horse riders called gardians immediately spur their mounts forward, steering the bulls along the dusty route in this ancient town in southern France.
The abrivado - a bull-running festival that has escaped the opposition to bull-fighting - is under way.
The festival in Sauve lasts three days and includes collective village meals, a fun fair and live music, well into the night.
"This is all part of our annual fete," said Gil Jose, a cafe owner in Sauve, a medieval village north-west of Nimes where many street signs are in the ancient Occitan language.
"You'll see it in many villages in this region in summer, but there's no comparison to bull-fighting."
Test of skill
The abrivado is a unique and highly popular bull-running festival, demonstrating the skills of horsemen and the bravery of young men against agile, long-horned Camargue bulls.
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Unlike bullfighting - which still takes place in this part of France - no blood is drawn. Here, the bulls are hemmed in by horsemen and manhandled by local youths, but it does not end in the bull’s death.
Vincent Lopez has been a breeder for nine years after taking over from his father. He has 130 bulls and cows. "They start at three or four years old," he said, "and work until they are 14 or 15. Then they retire to pasture."
The bull-herding is based on a theme; one method of bull-herding is called a bandido, which follows a prescribed course, while the piscine has an area fenced off with a pool, providing a theoretical escape for the men from the horns of the bull.
Another specific type of bull-herding is gaze, which requires a river. The gardians skilfully guide four bulls at a time along a course and into the water. This demonstration shows off the skills of the handlers’ control.
This year, Sauve held a bandido and gaze, following a route in front of the village. The gardians are highly skilled and experienced horse riders, dressed in black trousers and multi-coloured shirts with heavy boots astride powerful grey Camargue horses.
Virginie Bolufer, a resident from Sommieres, another ancient village downstream from Sauve, has been in the saddle since the age of seven and riding as a gardian from the age of 18. This year she was joined by her daughter Else, 17, who was riding as a gardian for the first time.
"In the past, the gardians were those who escorted bulls to the arena for the course camarguise, another bloodless bull-running event, long before the days of Lorries," she said.
|During a gaze, gardians guide four bulls at a time along a course and into the water [Nik Lawrence/Al Jazeera]
"This is my passion. I inherited it from my father and now my daughter is a gardian too," she added, clearly proud of Else's performance.
The event begins with a parade of the riders in formation along the route before the eager crowds. Colour, light, noise and anticipation ferment the festive atmosphere.
As soon as the bull hurtles from its pen it is immediately surrounded by a group of gardians and the furious knot of animals charges forward.
This rush of animals is then chaotically joined by young men who throw themselves into the melee, trying to cling to the bull's horns, neck or tail, or simply run alongside for the thrill.
For half a kilometre this mad confusion of animals and men stampedes along the dusty course. If they manage to bring the bull to a standstill, which is rare, the job is done and cheers erupt from the crowd.
The bull is released and continues with its escort while the proud young heroes assume the requisite air of studied nonchalance and return for the next round.
The route is lined with high steel barriers for the spectators to stand behind, although the bars are wide enough to dodge behind if need be, offering a proximity to the bulls which distinguishes this from bull runs elsewhere.
"We have bullfighting in Mexico, but nothing like this," said Mexican tourist Luisa Jimenez who was brushed by one of the bulls as it charged by. "I actually touched it. It's really amazing to get so close."
However, the sheer speed and confusion of charging bulls and horses, despite the prowess of the gardians, means that not everything always goes smoothly.
"Injuries are not unknown. It happens," said an officer of the Federation Francaise de Sauvetage et de Secourisme, a national volunteer service that delivers first aid at sporting events, who didn't want to be named. Their presence is mandatory at these events.
"Some time ago a gardian fell from his horse, but that was the only serious case this year. They are rare though. Usually it's scrapes and bruises."
Animal rights concerns
Bullfighting was declared illegal in France in 2011. To counter that decision officials declared it a non-material cultural heritage, protecting it under UNESO's Heritage Convention, thus allowing areas with strong cultural ties to continue the tradition.
Claire Starozinski, president of Alliance Anticorrida, an anti-bullfighting group based in Nimes, where bulls are still fought and killed in the ancient Roman arena, said “the abrivado concerns me but it all depends on the breeder who mustn't let any kind of violence occur," she said. "Like too many people pushing or pulling the animal or keeping the bulls waiting in the van parked in the sun".
But Starozinski admits, "Circuses and zoos are much more cruel than the abrivado".
Source: Al Jazeera