Every year is Year of the Tiger at South Africa’s Tiger Canyons
I spent two hours in a tiger’s den this week, watching her nurse five hours-old newborn cubs — including the first white cub born in the wild in more than 50 years.
The tiger was an 11-year-old female called Julie, born in a North American zoo but rehabilitated into the wild at a South African tiger sanctuary established by maverick conservationist John Varty.
Varty’s Tiger Canyons, outside Philippolis in the Free State, saw its tiger population rocket from 12 to 17 overnight — more tigers than are reputed to remain in the renowned flagship tiger reserve of Ranthambore in India!
I had been monitoring Julie alongside Varty for almost two weeks, familiarizing myself to the tigress as she neared the end of her three and a half month gestation period. Albeit hand-reared, Julie has lived wild in the Tiger Canyons reserve for several years. Her mate Saetao, two sons Tiger Boy and Shy Boy, and foster-daughter Savannah — a lioness — are completely wild and free ranging, and according to Varty would have no hesitation in “taking us down” should they encounter us on foot.
However, earlier on the day she gave birth, tigress Julie welcomed me to her world with a moving show of affection and acceptance.
Having eyed me warily as I walked alongside her mentor John Varty for several days, Julie stood up where she lay panting heavily, her belly bloated and distended with what would later transpire to be five tiny tigers, walked to me and rubbed her head over mine in a typical big cat greeting ritual, licked my face then rolled on to my lap as I sat transfixed on the ground. With this gesture I understood that Julie had welcomed me into her life, and subsequently into her den.
It was the most wonderful moment in my 23-year career as a wildlife photographer — but one that would pale in less than 24 hours, when Julie accepted me inside her den alongside her only-hours-old litter.
As I crawled into the den in the early hours of Monday morning and knelt alongside Varty, tigress Julie raised tired eyes to meet ours, and gave a simple brief “chuff” — the typical tigers’ communication vocalization. Awed, John Varty and I saw five tiny cubs squirming at her side — including one white cub with black stripes alongside the four of normal coloration. All, including the mother, appeared to be in fine health, and already competition for the four teats the tigress has had begun.
“Seeing those tiny cubs was the most magical moment of my life,” says Varty.
“If she raises the white one it will be the only free-ranging wild white tiger on earth. But first it must survive. Tigers have only four teats and it will be a struggle for her to raise five cubs. Realistically I can hope for three of the litter to make it, so the odds against the white one reaching maturity are stacked against it.
“Fortunately tigress Julie is a wonderful hunter — she has accounted for more than 80 blue wildebeest and 60 blesbuck alone that I know of, so the cubs are in great care.
“But we will not interfere and will let nature take its course. If she abandons any of the cubs, or they fall behind in the struggle for milk from their mother, so be it. My goal is to raise wild tigers, and I want these cubs to be raised and integrated into the wild without human interference,” he says.
Varty, a controversial film-maker and conservationist, and co-owner of the world famous Londolozi Private Game Reserve in the Sabi Sand Wildtuin adjoining Kruger National Park, believes the future of tiger conservation lies in projects such as his, breeding tigers in fenced reserves where they are afforded full protection from the threats of human encroachment, yet are able to lead natural lives, hunting and fending for themselves
Wild tiger populations are in crisis worldwide, with populations plummeting from more than 10 000 a decade ago to fewer than 1 000 today. Several reserves in Asia have recently admitted they have no more tigers.
Ironically there are more than 45 000 tigers in captivity in zoos, private collections and assorted showgrounds around the world. Even disgraced former world heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson has a “pet” tiger! Michael Jackson owned one too.
Varty points out that wild tigers in Asia are struggling to share living space with almost half of humanity — about 1,7-billion people in China and 1,3-billion in India, the last remaining strongholds of the huge striped cats.
Will Tigers Survive?
The chances of the tiger surviving the next 50 years in these places seem slim, given the current rate of decline. Tiger body parts, everything from internal organs and bones to the claws, skin and even the whiskers, are sought after in Chinese markets and command premium prices. Although illegal, the trade in the Cites Appendix 1 tiger and tiger commodities is flourishing. And Varty believes the home range-states of the tiger are less able, inclined or motivated to conserve their remaining stocks.
Tiger eco-tourism in Asia is not nearly as developed or sophisticated as eco-tourism in Africa, and with his Londolozi model to work from — one of the most successful eco-tourist developments in the world — Varty believes more tigers should be placed on properly managed private land as soon as possible.
Why and How Varty Established Tiger Canyons
To this end John Varty, or JV to those close to him, set about buying degraded sheep farms in the Karoo. Unlikely tiger habitat one might think, and I did too, until I ventured, with some scepticism, to Tiger Canyons recently.
Since moving the alien sheep off the land and closing countless windmills the grasslands have proliferated and springs that had not flowed for generations are now productive year-round. The rugged landscape, split by ravines and canyons that provide pools the tigers love to wallow and swim in (tigers are the most water-loving of cats and frequently take to the water).
It may not be the dense jungles of India, but then Varty points out that tigers live or have lived in pretty diverse landscapes in Asia too, from the desolate and icy wastes of Siberia, to the Caspian desert, the deciduous and evergreen forests of India, the mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans and the bamboo forests of Nepal and south China.
The tigers at Tiger Canyons have adapted perfectly to the Karoo landscape — and as JV points out, they are fenced off by a 3,6m electrified fence that keeps them separate from humans.
“In India tigers compete for living space with 320 people per square kilometre. In China it is 130 per square kilometre. And those figures are about four years out of date.
“Here where we are near Philippolis it is the least densely populated place in South Africa, with fewer than 2 humans per square kilometre. I believe that what the tiger needs for its survival more than anything else is land, stocked with prey species, and protected from human encroachment. And with the population growth we see in India I don’t think they will ever get more land there,” he says.
Tigers in Africa?
The idea seems fanciful; but not necessarily so. Some influential palaeo-anthropologists believe fossil records indicate tigers may once have roamed Africa too, and that they dispersed from this continent much as did primitive Man. Conversely lions, leopards and cheetahs also once roamed widely across Asia, so the thought of tigers in Africa may not be a flight of fancy after all.
After several visits to see tigers in Asia over the years, Varty realized the species was in a parlous state. His discussions with conservationists fell on deaf ears, he says.
A man of action, JV describes himself as a conservationist who prefers to do things rather than sit around talking about them — an approach that has both won friends and made enemies. He has no PhD and does not aspire to one. Eleven years ago he began buying derelict and run-down sheep farms in the Karoo after a search for suitable land as well as a province with conservation legislation that would allow his project, which the Free State provided.
He then sourced two 8-month-old tiger cubs from a zoo in North America, enlisted the help of big cat handler Dave Salmoni and set about rehabilitating them.
A six-and-a-half-year journey later those two tigers, Ron and Julie, had learned to fend for themselves. The story has many parallels with the story of Elsa of Born Free fame, the lioness hand-reared by George and Joy Adamson in Kenya and subsequently returned to the wilds there.
Today tiger Ron also lives a free and wild life at Tiger Canyons, and sired three cubs earlier this year with another tigress named Shadow.
Shadow roams wild too, and is a masterful huntress. She is raising her and Ron’s cubs in the wild, with little human contact at all.
In January 2009 Julie also gave birth to three cubs, but abandoned them at birth, possibly because her previous litter, born three years ago, had not properly dispersed.
One of those January cubs was a rare white tiger. Varty debated within himself at length on the advisability or otherwise of rearing those cubs himself, eventually taking them into his care. The three, Shine, Zaria and a young male named Sundarban, are today seen as ambassadors for Tiger Canyons, accompanying guests on guided walks, but will soon begin their own rehabilitation into the wild.
Advocating Contact and Tiger Conservation
I have spent many hours over a two-week period interacting with these young tigers, walking through the rugged canyons with them and swimming alongside them in its deep pools. Again, this was something I approached with skepticism — believing that close contact with wild animals, or animals that should be wild, should be shunned and avoided.
But a few hours in the company of these cats has changed my outlook. I believe much can be learned, and I felt privileged to be accepted by these tigers.
At 10 months they are already as big, if not bigger, than a full-grown male leopard. Should they wish, their claws and jaws could rip my human flesh like paper. Yet their play, robust as it is, is done at an intensity perhaps only 40-50 percent of that they use on each other.
And when the young white female, Shine, became a little over-robust with me, she later showed her concern by approaching and tenderly laying her head on my shoulder, chuffing her apologies. The ability to approach and interact with big cats in this way was both educational and inspiring, and I quickly became an advocate for tiger conservation.
The few tourists that make their way to Tiger Canyons and get the opportunity to view tigers in the wild, or walk with these three soon-to-be returned to the wild youngsters, certainly leave in awe of the most majestic of cats. Not one of them, says Varty and his assistant, Jade de Klerk, have ever expressed opinions other than positive.
“Nobody has ever said tigers don’t belong in Africa. Many believe too that perhaps Africa offers the best long term future,” says JV. “Everybody leaves here concerned about the plight of the wild tiger, and determined to do something to help save them.”
Varty is currently negotiating for more land for tigers in South Africa, and these three fast-growing cubs could be a seed population in another, new tiger reserve.
Says JV: “I don’t want to own tigers. I have 17 here already, and that is too many. We need more land for tigers urgently. I want to create tiger reserves in private hands. I need people who are prepared to buy and fence land, and stock it with prey.
“Large areas properly fenced and secured, stocked with enough prey species, where tigers can be introduced and live wild lives. I will give them tigers once they have that. Who cares if they are in Africa, or anywhere else for that matter. Perhaps, some time in the future, we will be able to reintroduce wild tigers back into the wilds of Asia. We have shown and are showing what is possible with enough time and effort.”
What is illuminating though — and scary — is the fact that the Tiger Canyons population is probably the only body of wild, free-ranging tigers anywhere in the world that is actually increasing in size. This in itself seems reason enough for conservation organizations to get behind the Varty initiative, or at least come see it close-up as a model for the future.
Varty points out that there are some 26 different “tiger conservation” organizations or associations worldwide. He believes much of their efforts, and funds, are wasted and poured into lost causes.
“I don’t believe we can rely on governments to save the tiger. I don’t believe the tiger can rely on bureaucrats. What is needed is more private land, fenced and stocked, where tigers can live free and unfettered. If in the future, and it could be the very near future, tourists have to come to Africa to see tigers, so be it.”
Loss Of Habitat is Tigers Biggest Threat
He says he does not like seeing wild animals behind bars or fences. He hates zoos and finds them to be anachronisms in the modern age.
But the reality is that humankind needs to be fenced out of reserves, something that has not been done much in Asia. The biggest threat to tigers, he says, is not necessarily poaching alone but the loss of habitat, both for tigers and their prey.
Tigers, and all wild animals, have to compete with earth’s growing human population, and they are not competing well.
My own initial skepticism about JV and his tiger project has been turned into respect and admiration. Here is a man who is flying in the face of convention, a man once described as a “khaki-clad playboy” and a controversial, egocentric, maverick pseudo-conservationist.
He is far from that. Money and the trappings of wealth don’t impress him. He drives a battered old pick-up truck. His home is ramshackle and rundown, his clothing tattered and torn through a life in the wild.
The reality I learned is that JV simply does not care what people say or think about him. JV cares about tigers. And leopards, lions and cheetahs. And he is going to use his experience, his worldwide network of friends, admirers and contacts to do something about it. Come what may, and no matter what people think or say about him.
I salute him. And I pray his tigers prosper.