by Matthew Sterne
on October 12, 2011

Winston Churchill once said: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, while an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

This is certainly one way to describe maverick conservationist John Varty and his Tiger Project at Tiger Canyons just outside the small town of Philippolis on the Van der Kloof Lake in the Karoo, in the Free State Province of South Africa. (Philippolis is the home of Laurens Van der Post, by the way.)

Despite being marred by controversy, on-going litigation, poaching attempts and a number of natural disasters, John has through some small miracle and the mercy of his friends and supporters managed to continue his mission of ensuring the survival of the wild Tiger.

Granted that the Karoo, or even Africa, wouldn’t be your first port of call to see wild Tigers, it’s surprising that this is the only place where such an intimate interaction with the magnificent creatures is possible. The lack of national parks in China, combined with the poor game-management and unfenced parks in India, has seen wild Tiger populations plummet from the turn of the century where estimates had wild Tiger populations in the region of 5 000 to less than 1 000 today.

Much like Rhinos and Lions, wild Tigers are persecuted for their bones, fat and skin. Sadly this highly endangered (CITES Level 1) cat is worth far more dead that it is alive.

Jon is quick to point out that while Tigers are in no immediate danger of extinction, (because they are kept in captivity across the globe), it is the conservation of wild Tiger populations that are of primary importance.

Taking a leaf out of the Arabian Oryx book, John set about building Tiger Canyons some 10 years ago through the adoption of captive bred Tiger cubs, Ron and Julie, who arrived from a Canadian Zoo.

For those that don’t know the story of the Arabian Oryx, this antelope was saved from extinction through captive breeding in Texas in the USA.  Only after the antelope had become extinct in the wild was the necessary protection put in place, and the animals eventually returned to their natural habitat.

It is hoped therefore that one day these wild Tigers too will return to their natural Asian habitat and replenish the forests and savannahs in which they once roamed free.

China and India could learn from the lessons of South Africa in respect to game reserve management and the value of wildlife to the local economies and job creation. The tourism value these wild Tigers, which are habituated to humans, could add to the economies of India and China would certainly offset the individual price poachers are currently achieving.

The question of whether China and India even deserve these magnificent cats is an interesting one, but it is inevitable that these cats will become extinct in the wilds of Asia over the next decade. Faced with this challenge, as controversial as it is, John believes that we must conserve wild Tiger populations wherever we can.  What is apparent from Tiger Canyons is that despite their love of water, all Tigers really need is space. Much like Leopards they are adaptable to a multitude of climatic conditions, and being ambush opportunistic hunters, they will prey on whatever is available.

Unlike any other cat, being in the presence of a Tiger is being in the presence of greatness. Julie’s contribution to the survival of her species is a truly spectacular story. Born in captivity, taught to hunt by Jon, today she is a wild Tiger that has raised all her cubs to be wild. Yet with the grace of an angel, Julie will interact with guests at Tiger Canyons on a level that cannot be explained – it’s as if she knows that her relationship with humans is inextricably connected to the survival of her species.

The tourism infrastructure in Philipollis is not very good – to say the least, and this is certainly no Londolozi, but if you are after a wild cat interaction like no other, then I would certainly recommend a visit to John Varty and his Tigers. Rhino Africa will gladly take care of all your travel arrangements.

As controversial as raising Tigers in Africa might be, Africa might just be the wild Tiger’s last hope.

For more information, visit the John Varty Big Cats website. Also, should you wish to take a trip to see these amazing animals, we can help put together an exciting itinerary for you, with great accommodation options. Just contact us!