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The ‘Expat’ Tigers

TIGER CANYONS was a name that I’d heard about 6 years ago when I joined Last Wilderness Foundation in 2011. The only thing I knew then was that it’s a private venture in South Africa, which had tigers and was started by John Varty. This didn’t excite me much hence I’d never tried to find out more about it since then, until recently that I happened to visit this place.

Habitat at Tiger Canyons

Flight from Mum-Johannesburg-Bloemfontein and a 2 hour drive thereafter, via the town of Philippolis to the Free State province of South Africa, got us to the gates of Tiger Canyons. On this journey from Bloemfontein to Tiger Canyons, we were fortunate to have had the esteemed company of Mr. John Varty (JV) himself (who’s also known as the ‘Tiger man of Africa’) and I had the opportunity to interact with him and know more about his idea behind his venture of working with tigers. He was generous enough to share his experiences throughout this journey and the next 3 days that we spent at Tiger Canyons.

The electrified fencing mechanism at Tiger Canyons

His journey with tigers began after his visit to Asia in the late 80’s. He visited Ranthambhore & Kanha Tiger Reserves in India and Bardiya & Chitwan National Parks in Nepal and he managed to see only one tiger in Ranthambhore on the 3rd day and one in Kanha from the back of an elephant; he denied going on an elephant back in Chitwan since he found it to be a cruel thing to do. Spotting the tiger in its natural habitat where it roams freely fascinated JV. It was then that he learnt that the tiger numbers in Asia were dwindling and there was no hope for this animal to survive alongside the rapid rise in population and depleting forests. When he went back to South Africa, he had just one thing in mind – the tigers are one of the most beautiful creatures on Earth and we cannot let them vanish from this planet. He thought to himself that if tigers cannot survive in Asia due to the challenge of less land space and high population, why can’t we take them to some place which has less population and more land space available. He wanted to make this happen and South Africa seemed like the best option for this experiment. Thus, JV embarked on this journey to conserve tigers in order to make it impossible for it’s extinction from this planet. His mission was “To create free ranging self-sustaining populations of tigers in the hands of private enterprise in and out of the Asian Continent”

Herbivores at Tiger Canyons
Herbivores at Tiger Canyons

In the year 2000, after procuring 17 sheep farms in the province of Philippolis, JV got his first 2 tigers Ron & Julie when they were about 7 months old. These 2 tigers were siblings and were born in a zoo in Canada, which meant that they were always fed and had never even seen a hunt by their mother. In order to teach them the skills of hunting, JV had to also get in some herbivores. The entire journey of Ron & Julie, from here until they started hunting for themselves at the age of 3 years is very well documented through the documentary film ‘Living with Tigers’ that was aired on Discovery channel in 2003. The tigers that are present at Tiger Canyons now are probably the 3rd & 4th generation who have been raised in the wild. Currently there are 13 tigers including a white tiger. The area of Tiger Canyons is about 8000 hectares (approx. 80 km2) area, divided into different parts for the tigers & the cheetahs. The entire area is fenced with solar powered electric fencing. Water bodies, grasslands, reed beds etc. have all been created within this area in order to provide for sufficient water and suitable habitat for both, the carnivores and the herbivores.

Inside the room at Tigress Julie Lodge

The new luxury lodge inside Tiger Canyons is named ‘Tigress Julie Lodge’. The facilities it has is beyond what one could ask for, not just because of the cozy rooms and the excellent service provided by the staff there, but also the ’cause of the comfort of sitting inside your room while tigress Jameez sits just outside the balcony on a rock, watching you have breakfast! The balcony overlooks the canyons and each morning and evening I was mesmerised with the beauty at the same time wanted to walk through the canyon someday.

View of the canyons from my room at Tigress Julie Lodge

On our first safari, we could see 5 different adult tigers and 3 cubs. Khumba & Bird were 2 males who were separated by an electric fence since they could not get along with each other. Unlike in the wild habitat where tigers would have territorial fights to claim their territories, here they were in a controlled environment. In the video seen below, you can see both these male tigers walking along the fence while showing their dominance Bird was with Jameez while Khumba was alone at this point. We then saw Panna as she fetched a warthog that was dropped for her by the staff. She promptly picked up the dead warthog and headed to her cubs. We watched her cubs as they quickly came out of their hiding place once they saw/ heard their mother with some food in her mouth. The cubs played with the carcass for a few minutes before they dragged it into the bushes. Panna probably wanted the cubs to learn and hence left them alone and walked away.

We then went back to find Khumba and surprisingly we found him mating with Oria. Before we’d landed in TC, JV had mentioned that Oria had probably littered a few days ago but nobody had seen her cubs until then, which was exciting news when we got here. But now it was a bit disappointing that she had started mating again with Khumba, which probably meant that her cubs didn’t survive and she’s back in estrus.

Between the two, Oria seemed to be the one coaxing Khumba to mate whereas he seemed absolutely disinterested and wanted to be left alone to sleep 🙂 After a while we left the mating couple and left for our lunch break. When we returned in the evening, we found the couple at the same place where we’d left them. They continued to mate at staggering intervals, but with longer gaps. Suddenly Khumba started walking away from Oria and headed in the direction of the fence where we’d first seen him in the morning. This was quite interesting as JV then mentioned to us that the female tigers synchronise their estrus cycles so that they can compete for a male when the time is right which in turn ensures genetic diversity. Thus, it is quite possible that Khumba was headed towards Jameez, who was also in estrus at that time. However Khumba stopped enroute near the mud road and rested. At the same time, as we kept an eye on Oria’s movements, she circled the mating spot a few time and then headed in the opposite direction with a steady pace. Hence we decided to leave Khumba to rest and followed her instantly. As we saw the sun setting ahead of her, she walked for about a kilometer, through the dry riverbed and then stopped near a bushy area. As she looked around, as if trying to scan the area, we suddenly heard some squeaky sounds from one of the bushes. This was a blissful moment since this is when we realised that Oria’s cubs were alive and she’d hidden them inside the bushes here. She then entered the same bush and since it was already dark by then, we decided to head back and come again early next morning to try and spot the cubs. The entire process of a tigress mating with the father of the cubs while the cubs were just a few days old was very interesting. We just couldn’t understand the reason behind this behaviour. However, JV had a very simple explanation to this – he said that Oria was celebrating the birth of the cubs with their father! 🙂

JV loves communicating with his tigers and he would greet them each time he met them and would say good-bye when he left by chuffing to them. He also growled at them to say that he’s offering them food.

The next day as we reached the spot early morning, we could still hear the sounds there and somehow we managed to see Oria lying down inside and some movement around her too. Within a few minutes, we saw one of the cubs slowly crawling around the entrance of the bush from where we had some visibility. One could easily look at them and suggest that these cubs were just a few days old since they could barely see and walk. We spent some time with these cubs and the mother and watched the cubs a few times again. However, since Oria did not move an inch from here, we gave up the plan of sneaking into her den to count the number of cubs.

The first sighting of Oria’s cubs

We decided to leave her alone with the cubs and head straight to see a white tiger. Currently there are no white tigers in the wild across the world. The last white tiger Mohan was captured as a cub from Rewa (Madhya Pradesh, India) in 1951.

The white tiger in Tiger Canyons, Ti-Bo (short for Tiger Bomb) as she is known, is one of the most beautiful tigresses I’ve seen, with black stripes on a white coat, blue eyes and a good built, lying on fresh green grass with the sun-rays falling on her body! Ti-Bo is Julie’s daughter from a litter of 5 cubs born in November 2009. As we watched her lying peacefully on the ground, the next minute she was on her feet and she walked hurriedly on to the other side of our vehicle focusing on something in the grass next to us. She instantly put her head into the tall grass blades and pulled out a Cape Hare and walked out proudly in front of us. Somewhere on the way she had dropped the hare, as she didn’t seem interested in feeding on it. We followed Ti-Bo for the next 30 mins and she lead us to a water body with some tall grasses around it. Here the staff had hidden a warthog inside the water and Ti-Bo somehow knew about it.

White Tiger Ti-Bo looking elegant with a lush green backdrop


Ti-Bo after picking up the warthog kill from under water

So she straight walked into the water and pulled the warthog meal out and this time she promptly sat down inside a bush to savour her meal. We then left her to enjoy the meal and went to Panna’s area to see if we could find the cubs again.

We met her on our way itself which and we continued to follow her instead. Her walk seemed like she was out for a hunt as she stopped every now and then and would look around for something. As we followed her, we saw the staff van that was waiting near a tree on which they had hung the Cape Hare, the one that was dropped by Ti-Bo earlier in the morning. I guess Panna realised that soon and walked towards the vehicle, she looked around and saw the kill hanging on the tree. She swiftly climbed up the tree and pulled out the hare from the tree and came down. It was obvious that she would take it to her cubs to feed them. However, as she reached the place where the cubs were hiding, she called out to them a couple of times but neither of the cubs came out. She probably was too hungry at this point and decided to have the meal all by herself without sharing it with the cubs. Within minutes she’d finished eating the hare (which probably just meant starters for her) and the cubs then appeared out of nowhere. They looked at her, smelt her and started making snarling sounds as if to say “how could you have it all by yourself??” Panna sat down patiently without any reaction as the cubs nudged her, licked her pushed her and then started playing by themselves. One tried climbing a tree while the other tried to follow. This was the first time I’d spent so much time with such young cubs in the open and it indeed was an experience observing them learn to climb as their mother watched them.

Tigress Panna with a Cape Hare kill


Tigress Panna with one of her four cubs nudging her

As planned, the evening drive was dedicated to Cheetah spotting. Since it was quite a hot day, we left a bit late, around 4:30pm and headed towards the Cheetah area. It was a nice drive and we managed to see Waterbucks, Cape Hare, Northern Black Korhaan and the Blue Korhaan enroute to the Cheetah area. As we reached the location, we spotted the Cheetahs just in front of our vehicle since they were so well camouflaged in the grasses. There were 2 of them viz. Rundi & Sabi, the 3-year-old male Cheetahs who have been hand raised by JV. These Cheetahs give you the best photo opportunities as here one can get off the vehicle, walk with them, touch them, sit with them etc. (strictly under the supervision of JV or his staff only) and all this in a beautiful landscape background! That evening, as we photographed these 2 cats, we witnessed a beautiful rainbow in the cloudy sky, which made our entire experience so surreal!

JV greeting Rundi & Sabi, his two hand-raised Cheetahs

The next morning we were woken up with the loud alarm calls of the Baboons who had gathered on top of the canyons overlooking our rooms. Immediately I pulled out my camera and rushed to the balcony hoping that I would see a tiger in the canyons. However, after calling for a few minutes the Baboons got back to their routine and one of the pairs even started mating. This was a beautiful frame to click with a silhouette background setting, though I couldn’t do justice with my small camera, below is what the scene looked like.

Silhouette shot of the Baboons mating while the rest of them gave out alarm calls

The plan for the morning was to do a trek in the canyons…..hence it was all the more exciting to hear the alarm calls this morning as it meant that there could be a predator presence around the same area. After a short drive from Tigress Julie Lodge, we parked the vehicle and started our walk around 6:00am. This was surely one of the most beautiful walks I’ve done till date, though a short one. This walk was also enriched by the knowledge and experiences that JV shared, about the breakouts in TC and how the floods had washed the fencing and how challenging it was to trace all the animals down and bring them back or shoot them so that they do not pose any threat to humans. Since it was not a long walk, we did it leisurely and were back at the vehicle by about 9:30am.

The start of our canyon walk
The view during the walk in the canyons

On reaching the lodge, we could still hear the Baboons calling and right there was Jameez sitting on the rock that was facing our rooms. Honestly if this were to be in the wild, it would definitely have lead people to vacate the place and go elsewhere for safety. However, since we knew that this was a regular phenomenon at TC and that it was safe due to the electric fencing that was present between the canyons and the lodge, we could peacefully stand at the balcony and watch her. She had positioned herself in the shade and apparently has been there all morning. As we started our breakfast in the dining area, we could continue to see her resting on the rock. As morbid it may sound, but I was quite fascinated by this situation and was curious at the same time to know how the electric fencing worked. I watched her for about 15 mins after finishing my breakfast and there she stood up and walked towards the fence. This is when JV explained that tigers use their whiskers to sense objects. When the whiskers brush against something, its root moves the blood, thus simplifying the movement. Nerves pick up on the movement and send signals to the brain. And exactly as he finished explaining this, Jameez testified it by touching her whiskers to the fence as if a human would do with his fingers to check the waters. It was really fascinating to witness this!

Jameez resting on the rocks – picture taken from my room at Tigress Julie Lodge

This last evening we spent entirely with Panna while also watching some of the birds that visited the water puddle close to where Panna was resting. As we watched the birds and Panna, JV was discussing his future plans of obtaining more land, creating reed beds to make a suitable habitat for the tigers, making a waterfall in the canyons, etc.

During these 3 days at Tiger Canyons, I had learnt a lot and had experienced even more through the various sightings, walks & discussions with JV.

John Varty made his first hunt of a lion at the age of twelve as a rite of passage to manhood. At the age of 18, after the demise of his father, he gave up hunting and along with his brother they started a family game farm Londolozi, which is today one of the most well-known game reserves in South Africa. He is a warm-hearted person who communicates with tigers; his understanding of each animal’s behaviour is quite unique. He is a maverick filmmaker and has made more than 30 documentaries like Living with Tigers, Shingalana, Leopard Queen etc. He is a very good singer, a poet and an author; his songs are based on his experiences with the animals, like the album called ‘In the Jaws of the Tiger’. In 2012, JV was attacked by one of his tigers Corbett and he suffered multiple injuries all over his body. He has also had a near death experience accident after his helicopter crashed. Though there is so much more to be said about him, his book ‘Nine Lives’, talks about his life in detail and his journey through all the ups & downs in his life. Though there are many controversies about his work, his experiments and his decisions about the intervention he made at different levels with the animals, personally I feel that there is a lot of learning that we can derive from his work. The land area that is today called as Tiger Canyons was once full of sheep farms that lead to overexploitation through digging bore wells, installing windmills etc. He has managed to change this by introducing natural prey and predators, creating water bodies, using dams and canals to trap the water at the ground level etc. His venture has given jobs to many families from the neighbouring town of Philippolis.

The hand raised Cheetah at the water body at Tiger Canyons

On a special note, I would like to mention that Tiger Canyons is a heaven for photographers. One can get beautiful images of tigers and cheetahs with surreal backdrops as the scenic beauty here is just unbelievable with open grasslands, mountains and water bodies. It is a must for people who haven’t ever seen a live tiger and/or a Cheetah, for people who cannot travel to Asia to witness the tigers. Also, all the staff at Tiger Canyons strictly adheres to the rules and there are no more than 3 vehicles around the animal at any given time, which allows the photographers to spend quality time with the animal and click as many images as one would like. I don’t want to judge that if this photography is in wild or in controlled environment, but beautiful images of these animals surely lead to creating conservation interests in global community.

For those who would specifically like to understand the survival of the Royal Bengal Tigers in it’s natural habitat and it’s behaviour, they must visit the Indian tiger reserves.

In India, the tiger is not just a subject for photography; it is an integral part of the tradition here and is also revered in many tribal cultures as ‘Baghesur’, ‘Waghoba’ etc. for protection. It is an animal that safeguards an ecosystem, it is an apex predator in the food chain, a controller of the herbivore population in the wild, a protector of forests due to which many of the forests in India are still protected and also the National Animal of India. Though the population in India was declining at some point, the situation now is much better with better protection being given to the animal and it’s habitat. These big cats are known to disperse and form their own territories, thus they move between different tiger reserves on reaching adulthood; this helps in maintaining the genetic diversity across the 50 tiger reserves in India. Despite the increasing population in India, tigers and human beings have co-existed to a large extent. Thanks to the efforts put in by the Government, the NGOs and the NGIs, India has seen an increase in the population of tigers in the last 10 years.

Tigress Panna posing in front of the Wildebeests

I will always vote for wild tigers, roaming freely in their natural habitat. But I also think that learnings from studies in controlled environments like Tiger Canyons need to be used while looking at reintroduction of orphaned cubs or relocation of adults to another areas. Learnings from Sariska & Panna reintroduction as well as JV’s experiments at Tiger Canyons can give us a better edge in managing such scenarios.

2 thoughts on “The ‘Expat’ Tigers”

  1. Very nice article sharing your experience at Tiger Canyons. I have been an admirer of the work of John Varty and Dave Salmoni and the efforts they have put in to create Tiger Canyons, though I feel they could have done things a little differently. In India, captive breeding of Tigers is not being done in a planned manner, neither is there any vision with respect to reintroducing captive-bred tigers into the wild. For that matter, India’s forests and critical forest corridors are also not being protected the way they ought to be. Anyway, please continue your good work. Best Wishes.

  2. Totally agree to the taught that these beautiful animal had lots of cultural value in India. NGOs and regulators have done wonders working hand in hand not only safeguarding them but also transforming animal conversation efforts to new highs.

    I must say the above narration of your trip to Tiger Canyons is luring and truly inspirational. Its overwhelming to note how JV has really conceptualized and executed something so beautiful.

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