30 July 2011 by Julienne du Toit

Tigers in Africa

Paris Hilton made people collapse with laughter in South Africa in 2010 when she tweeted something about seeing tigers, elephant and lions in Africa. Did that blonde girl really not know that tigers are from like, India, not Africa?

But Ms Hilton wasn’t that far off the mark. Actually, not long after that I found myself in, actually inside, a tiger’s den. She sort of shared my name, Julie. It was a weird feeling. Here was a tiger that common sense told me should be ripping me to shreds for coming within three metres of her tiny cubs. And here, even closer to her, was John Varty, aka JV, aka the African tiger whisperer, murmuring soothing words - “it’s okay, Julie” - and chuffing gently to her. She was a ‘tame’ tiger, so don’t try it with any other.

(Chuffing, a kind of rapid puffing noise, is a magical sound in tiger language. It soothes tigers to a remarkable degree. I also started to feel quite calm.)

And did I mention I was here on my home continent of Africa? So why was I with a tiger in Africa?

John Varty (who started legendary bush lodge Londolozi with his brother Dave Varty decades ago) likes to describe himself as a maverick film-maker and conservationist. Some people see him as an egotist, obsessed with big cats and drama. And yes, maybe he is, but he is passionate about tigers.

He has fought tooth and nail - excuse the expression - to create a sanctuary for them here in Africa, outside the Karoo town of Philippolis.

Varty was looking for a place where they can breed and build up numbers because in his opinion things are not safe for tigers in the wild in Asia. And it’s not as outlandish as it sounds. This is the method that helped save the white rhino and Arabian oryx: build up numbers wherever you can so that when natural habitats are safer, they can be returned to where they belong.

Visitors are more than welcome, although you should be warned in advance that this is no commercial, tourism-focused operation. It is John Varty doing the best that he can to conserve these incredible cats, pouring every bit of money into their cause. If you go in the afternoon, you may get to hear JV playing the guitar and singing his own conservation anthems.

But that’s nothing compared to sitting in a 4x4 with a cage built round it, gazing at a gigantic tiger purring contentedly on the hood of the vehicle.

Category: Wildlife

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