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Tigers of the Karoo: A conservation story

Tigers of the Karoo: A conservation story

Julie the tigress had chosen a perfect den – a bushy cave-like overhang hidden by branches and soft with deep leaf litter.
But could she possibly have chosen a worse time? Just after midnight, during a spectacular storm that had lightning dancing off the ironstone koppies outside Philippolis, she gave birth to five perfect cubs – one of them white. Within hours, the population of big cats on the Karoo farm, Tiger Canyons, had expanded to 17.

Why in the Karoo?

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In a day the paparazzi were there too, although uncharacteristically reverential and respectful. Julie received photographers Daryl Balfour and Chris Marais in her den like a golden-eyed queen.

Film-maker and maverick conservationist John Varty (JV), kept her calm by chuffing to her – a rapid series of exhaled puffs that tigers use for greetings and apologies.

“It’s okay, Julie, okay Jules,” he’d add in a sing-song voice, and then her fierce eyes would soften as she gently nuzzled tiny cubs against her creamy belly. They cuddled close, eyes tightly closed, suckling and then twitching every now and then in their newborn tiger dreams.

Over the next four weeks, they’d quadruple in size, and would soon be drinking a litre of milk a day each. And tragically, because tigresses have only four teats, one would die. But what are these huge cats doing in the Karoo in the first place?

Poaching is rampant

karoo tigers, john varty

Dave and John Varty, founders of Londolozi Game Reserve, had been talking of bringing tigers to Africa since the early 1990s, of creating a sanctuary for them on the other side of ancient Gondwana. Over the years, meanwhile, the population of tigers in Asia has plummeted. The reason for the rapid decline? Tigers are now worth more dead than alive.

Poaching is rampant, because every part of a tiger has value – its whiskers, its claws, its meat, its pelt, its bones. Demand is highest in China, Taiwan and Korea. The end-uses for tiger parts range from the medically macabre to the downright gruesome. As a result, tigers are under pressure in every part of their Asian range. Numbers of wild tigers are down to fewer than 3 200, a 97% drop in numbers over a century.

In their greatest stronghold, India, numbers have dropped from a guesstimated 3 600 in 2002 to no more than 1 400 today.
The press of the human population in India means the national parks are their last sanctuary, and even there they are painfully vulnerable.

Famous tiger park Sariskar in Rajasthan has not seen tigers since 2004. In 2009 officials from Panna National Park in Madhya Pradesh admitted that they had no more tigers left either. Yet in 2006 they had 24.

“We now have more tigers than parks like Ranthambore,” remarks Varty. It’s clearly something that distresses him.

Elsewhere, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) reports that rubber and palm oil companies are devastating tiger territories in Indonesia and Malaysia. In Siberia, loggers are ruining tiger habitat. In the Mekong, a network of dams and roads are fragmenting the wilderness where they once thrived. In China, the last wild tiger was seen in the 1980s.

“I went to meeting after meeting about what can be done to save the tigers. But it’s all just talk,” grumbles Varty. “There’s no action. Meanwhile, we’re losing tigers fast.”

‘Genetic reservoirs’

karo tigers

Yet there are plenty of captive-bred tigers – in Texas alone there are 3 000. Worldwide they number somewhere between 15 000 and 20 000, maybe more. Of those, only a thousand are in coordinated breeding programmes. The rest are in zoos, circuses and kept as pets.

Most horrifying of all, about 5 000 are being ‘farmed’ in China. They live and die in miserable cages where their whiskers, urine and ultimately, their eyes, organs, meat and bones are harvested.
Still, could such tigers help save the species?

In 2008 international researchers published a study in the scientific magazine Current Biology suggesting that captive-bred tigers could be used as ‘genetic reservoirs’ for natural populations.

What they did not explain is how ‘tame’ tigers can be re-introduced when they’re as helpless as domestic dogs in the wild.
Can they be taught hunting and survival skills by humans? It appears so. In 2000, Varty had identified two young Bengal tigers in a Canadian zoo that might be good candidates for a grand African experiment in tiger re-wilding. Varty thought he’d go over, get a few tips on how to train tigers from handler Dave Salmoni, and then come back with tigers Ron and Julie.

Salmoni swiftly convinced him they’d rip him apart in a few months. He and Varty worked together on the re-wilding of Ron and Julie for four years – a successful project documented in the famous Discovery series Living with Tigers.

What you need is money

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The tigers ended up in the southern Free State Karoo simply because the province’s predator laws are lenient. But the choice of land bordering the Vanderkloof Dam, proved serendipitous. It’s rough, hilly country, with spectacular canyons and plenty of water, which they adore. Good tiger habitat, it turns out. In fact, it’s passably similar to the dry thorn forests the big cats inhabit in India’s north-western areas.

“This swathe of former farmland is one of the tiger sanctuaries that could help safeguard the species until Asia can once again effectively conserve the tiger,” says Varty.

“I have modelled my project on the Arabian Oryx, saved by the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona and now successfully returned to the Middle East. I put my faith in private enterprise, not governments. In South Africa the black and white rhino and the wild dog have been saved largely by private enterprises working with national and provincial parks. I believe the tiger will be saved the same way.

“It really doesn’t matter whether the tiger sanctuaries are in Australia, Texas or South Africa. What you need is money, suitable land, suitable prey, a fenced park, and a commitment to saving the tiger.”

Lion fans leave impressed

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Tigress Julie relaxes with two of her cubs, including the first white tiger born in the wild since the 1950s.

It sounds good on paper, but Varty has been slated by many for his shoot-from-the-hip approach to saving tigers. His breeding efforts have been in vain, they say, because these tigers are not purebred subspecies. Releasing them would cause ‘genetic pollution’.

Varty shrugs it off. “Subspecies are man-made distinctions. Until humans isolated them, there was always genetic mixing on the edges of populations.”

Tourists make no such distinction, even though there are currently no real tourism facilities at Tiger Canyons. Dozens of foreigners have flown out after a visit to Londolozi to complete their tick-list of big cats. Hundreds of South Africans who could never afford a trip to one of India’s remaining tiger parks have seen them here.

Even lion fans leave impressed. Visitors are taken out in a vehicle that resembles a heavy-duty mobile cage. It soon became clear why that’s necessary. Seatao, the father of the cubs, leapt easily onto the front (all vehicles at Tiger Canyons have caved-in bonnets) and chuffed a greeting. He gazed at us with interest and settled down with a grunt of satisfaction. Relaxed as he was, a playful cuff from one of those massive paws could take your face off.

“People always ask me which one is bigger? If a tiger and a lion had a fight, which one would win? Well, I’ve seen tigers crunch up a full-grown leopard tortoise-like it was nothing. And lions try, but they just don’t get it right. If there’s a fight, the tiger will win, every time.”

On a chilly afternoon, thick with threatening rain clouds, we took a walk with young tigers Sunda, Shine and Zaria. They are Julie’s previous cubs – she’d abandoned them, perhaps because they were born while her other young were still dependent on her.

Only half-grown, they swaggered down the rough track with us, full of confidence in their own power, playful as puppies, curious as cats. The white tiger Shine sniffed at a Karoo violet and Sunda playfully leapt against Chris to sniff his camera before bounding up a small koppie with Varty. They looked utterly at home in this land, as if they’d been here forever.  

Story Update – March 2020

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Since this story was published in September 2010 things have changed quite dramatically. Despite numerous setbacks, including an infamous incident in which a boy was killed by a captive Cheetah in March 2017, Tiger Canyon is still there, a wild oasis for Tigers in Africa. It is now a well-established reserve with good tourism facilities.

Filmmaker and conservationist John Varty is still alive and doing his best to save the world following a heart attack on October 4th 2019, and a successful heart bypass surgery. His brother Dave is still the CEO of Londolozi and, judging by his Londolozi blog, heavily involved in the day-to-day running.

For many reasons, the number of tigers at the reserve has fluctuated between 10 and 26 over the years, and in general, the population seems to be thriving. This is in line with international numbers, which WWF says has been trending upward slightly since 2016. While conservationists have urged these numbers to be treated cautiously, India announced its wild tiger population has increased by more than 30% in four years, raising hopes for the survival of the endangered species. A census found there were 2,967 tigers, up from 2,226 four years ago.

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