The crimes of London's Jack the Ripper pale when compared with the three-year slaughter of almost 100 men, women and children in remote central France. Mutilated victims were discovered over a wide area of the Auvergne and south Dordogne from 1764 to 1767, and the region was in such a grip of terror that King Louis XV sent soldiers to try to hunt what became known as the Beast of Gevaudan. The identity of the killer remains a mystery. Although it was said to be a wolf, many believe the beast was a man. One theory put to Robert Louis Stevenson when he visited the area in 1879 was that the attacks were by a werewolf - which may have inspired his classic Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The panic aroused by the Beast of Gevaudan was so wide-spread that hunters from all over Europe converged on the area and the region's wolf population plummeted. Eventually, almost every wolf in France was wiped out. Today, it's estimated that about 55 remain in the wild. But in the area once terrorised, French zoologist Gerard Menatory has opened a reserve, Les Loups du Gevaudan (The Wolves of Gevaudan). There, near the small town of Marvejols, he hopes to boost the numbers of the French wolf, along with those of other endangered wolves mainly from zoos overseas. The park is home to more than 100, including 30 Mongolian, 20 Siberian, 13 Canadian and a dozen Polish wolves. At reception, visitors are shown a film of a wolf pack in the wild before proceeding to observation points overlooking the fenced reserve. Nearby is Menatory's private wolf-study park. He's convinced that the Beast of Gevaudan couldn't have been a wolf. 'Wolves have been hunted for centuries and have a genetic fear of man,' he says. Despite their meagre numbers, wolves are still blamed when sheep are killed. Menatory says the killers are probably wild dogs. The Mongolian wolf is a star of the reserve. It's believed to be extinct in Mongolia, where it was hunted for its fur. 'When the park opened in 1985, our purpose was to introduce wild wolves to France,' says Menatory. 'But we no longer think about it - opposition is too strong.' At least Les Loups du Gevaudan will ensure the survival of an animal in an area in which it's been persecuted perhaps more than anywhere else. The wolf park is 10km north of Marvejols, off the N9 road. Marvejols can be reached by train. The largest town in the region is Clermont-Ferrand, which has direct rail links with Paris. For more information e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .