This story was first published in the September 2010 issue of SA COUNTRY LIFE and was updated on 29 July 2019.
COUNTRY LIFE brought you the fascinating story of tigers in Africa back in September 2010. John Varty’s project in South Africa’s Free State province continues to attract worldwide interest, so we decided to post the story here.
Julie the tigress had chosen a perfect den – a bushy cave-like overhand 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.
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.
Tigers in our Backyard
But what are these huge cats doing in the Karoo in the first place?
Dave and John Varty, found 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-users 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 were down to fewer than 3 200 in 2010, a 97% drop in numbers over a century, but the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says about 3 900 tigers remain in the world currently.
In their greatest stronghold, India, numbers have dropped from a guesstimated 3 600 in 2002 to no more than 1 400 in 2010. In 2015, the National Tiger Conservation Authority reported that this number had increased to an estimated 2 226.
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 Sariska in Rajasthan has not seen tigers since 2004. Since India’s intelligence agency the Central Bureau of Investigation declared that there were no tigers left in the park in 2005, there have been a number of efforts to reintroduce the tigers back to the area and now its numbers sit at 18 tigers with five cubs as of 2018. The Panna National Park in Madhya Pradesh had 24 tigers in 2006, but by 2009 officials admitted that they had no more tigers left either. A re-introduction programme was initiated in March 2009 and the park reported that they had 35 tigers in 2017.
Elsewhere, the 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.”
Yet there are plenty of captive-bred tigers – in the US the WWF estimates that there are there are 5 000. 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 7 000 to 8 000 are being ‘farmed’ in China, Thailand, Lao PDR and Vietnam. They live and die in miserable cages where their whiskers, urine and ultimately, their eyes, organs, meat and bones are harvested.
You also might like: Tigers Being Bred in Gauteng Backyards for Petting and Bone Export
Tiger! Tiger! Burning Bright
Still, could such tigers help save the species?
In 2008 international researches 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 reintroduced 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 identified two young Bengal tigers in a Canadian zoo that might be good candidates for a grand African experiment in tiger rewilding.
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 rewilding of Ron and Julie for four years – a successful project documented in the famous Discovery series Living with Tigers.
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 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.
“The 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.”
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 distinctions. 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 Canyon have caved-in bonnets) and chuffed a greeting. He gazed at us with interest and settled down with a a grunt of satisfaction. Relaxed as he was, a playful chuff 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 Zaira. 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.
+27 (0) 71 607 9279; [email protected]
Words Julienne du Toit
Photography Chris Marais