14 May 2014 by Kate Turkington

Tigers in the Free State

Yes, you already know that South Africa has fabulous destinations for viewing the Big Five, but did you know that we also have magnificent free-roaming tigers?

Tigress Ussuri goes hunting. Images by John Sheath

I first went to Tiger Canyons almost a decade ago. Legendary conservationist John Varty, co-founder with brother Dave of the equally legendary Londolozi Game Reserve in Mpumalanga, had seen yet another opportunity to protect our wildlife, but this time he had set his sights much farther afield – into Asia and at the magnificent Asian tigers. 

His trips to India, Nepal and China had convinced him that 'no Asian country had been successful in saving the wild tiger'.

And so in 2000 he acquired two tiger cubs from Bowmanville Zoo in Canada – Ron and Julie – and started the ex-situ controversial and now famous tiger-conservation experiment near South Africa’s second largest dam – the Vanderkloof Dam in the Free State.

Tigris Ussuri and her cubs. Can you spot all three cubs? Tigris Ussuri and her cubs. Can you spot all three cubs?

Sadly, at the end of 2013, Julie, then 14 years old, died. Her passing affected John deeply, but he says that 'the relationship I had with tigress Julie was profound. It changed and enriched my life enormously. It took me to places and in directions I could never have imagined.'

Julie’s legacy lives on. From that first pair of founding tigers have come over 20 tigers – you’ll see them roaming 36 000ha of the golden plains of the Karoo at Tiger Canyons. Here they hunt and bring down their own prey.

It’s a six-hour drive on excellent roads from Johannesburg to the little town of Philippolis in the Free State, and then along a 25km dirt road into the canyon.

Perhaps his greatest and most enduring triumph is exactly what he set out to do: ‘Saving the Asian tiger from extinction.’

First stop is the Information Centre (a converted farm building), where against the backdrop of a pictorial exhibition, John will tell you the story in his own words – expect high drama, heartache and joy – and explain passionately what he is trying to achieve, no less than 'to save the Asian tiger from extinction'.

Then you’ll climb on to a stoutly built game vehicle where, ironically, you are in the ‘cage’ and the tigers are running free.

Expect at least one huge animal to jump up on the bonnet and ‘talk’ to John through a small window above his head as he stops at various points within the gorgeous reserve, where mountains, rivers, deep gorges and plains meet the big sky country of the Karoo.

The tigers hunt and kill their own prey The tigers hunt and kill their own prey

Today, John’s dream has become reality. Although John himself survived an almost fatal attack from male lion Corbett in 2012, today the tigers are thriving and visitors come from all over the world for close-up encounters with free-roaming Asian tigers.

John has been described as ‘gritty, mono-maniacal and hard-nosed, like Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab, with perhaps the far-sightedness of a Charles Darwin'.

He’s survived swimming across crocodile-infested rivers and being attacked by charging lions and hippos (his autobiography is aptly titled Nine Lives), but perhaps his greatest and most enduring triumph is exactly what he set out to do: 'Saving the Asian tiger from extinction.'

Go and see for yourself. I did. It’s an unforgettable experience.

Born free... Born free...

Category: Wildlife

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