Has Tiger Canyon earned its stripes?

It’s a hot, South African November. I find myself in a barn in the koppie-studded plains of the Upper Karoo with four photographer friends from Canada. It’s cool compared to the outside heat, but the clutter of tiger memorabilia – newspaper clippings, old movie boards, books – that surround us overwhelms our senses. They are puzzle pieces in the life of “JV” Varty, founder of Londolozi Game Reserve and filmmaker. We have followed him to Tiger Canyon to experience the best tigers photo ops in the world.


JV is not the young, lean and tanned bushman who started Londolozi Game Reserve in the 70s and featured in films with Brooke Shields. Today, on the wrong side of 60, he bears the scars of a helicopter crash, a tiger attack, skin cancer and years in the hot African sun. Great tufts of white hair explode out from beneath his dust-engrained cloth cap giving the impression of a somewhat eccentric lion. He says he is “losing his power,” but when he barks “listen up,” we know he wants to share a message.

Sitting at the table, cradling the immense skull of a tiger, he told us that he arrived in the Karoo 16 years ago with a dream of saving tigers, which face extinction in India. It is an experiment, he says, and by flooding and irrigating areas and planting reeds and trees, and reintroducing indigenous game he has been able to create a suitable habitat for them to live, hunt and breed.

There are no cold hand towels or neatly dressed staff doing meet and greets at Tiger Canyon. After the talk, JV leads us wordlessly to an extraordinary looking game drive vehicle fitted with a viewing cage. Three-meter-high fences also tell of the power of a cat, which can reach top speed in two paces. It feels like we are entering Jurassic Park, but our first sighting is not of a T-Rex, but it’s equally extraordinary – a family of tigers lying on a dolerite outcrop. We were mesmerized by their beautiful markings, immense size and grace. We followed them for the morning as they explored, hunted and marked their territory. Powerfully built, they made lions look like domestic cats.

“Maybe we will see them box,” says JV, as we two tigers walked shoulder to shoulder along their territorial boundary. He was now the cameraman, and could not resist working the angles, anticipating the action. As he stepped out of his vehicle to get the best angle, I was reminded that he was nearly killed by a male tiger some years ago. It stalked JV while he was opening a gate and knocked him unconscious with one swipe of his massive paw. He would have dragged him to his death had the tiger not been distracted by the camera crew.

JV carefully described the birth, lives and deaths of his tigers. Some, like Shy Boy, have been born at Tiger Canyon and have never known a different life. Others have been bought from tiger breeding projects to give a life in the wild. His mission is to ensure none are ever placed in captivity. Canned tiger hunting, though illegal, is alive and well in the Free State, he said, and someone should come and expose it.

Tiger Canyon’s 3000 hectares of tumbled rocks, grasslands, canyons and flooded wetlands, is barely enough for 20 tigers and three tigers died weeks before in territorial encounters. He and his tigers need more land.

At Tiger Canyon we took the pictures we dreamed of. Tigers walking, tigers stalking, tigers reflected in still pools. JV believes that he has a partnership with the tigers whereby he is protecting them, and they, in turn, offer him and his guests’ the ultimate photographic opportunities. I was surprised that culled warthogs were used to create even more interesting situations for us to photograph. There were 9 cheetahs on the property, and they also work on the same partnership arrangement.

I had admiration for JV, and his bold “experiment” to save the tiger in Africa. In Asia, the Tiger is on a collision course with extinction, and there is nothing to stop the inevitability of it. Some scientists, JV told us, claim that tigers and leopards and lions lived side by side in Asia before the continents split. Nobody really knows.

And even if tigers never occurred in Africa, does it really matter? Just as all people in dire poverty round the world should be the collective responsibility of all nations in the world, surely animals can also be seen in the same global way.

This small farming community of Phillipolis, which was the birthplace of poet and writer Laurens van der Post, is benefitting greatly from Tiger Canyon. Tourists are coming here. Guest houses, like the one we stayed at, are doing well. JV is beating on the coffers of the SA government development funds trying to secure more land. Tigers are good for people, he says. He has inspired a doctor from Pretoria to build a lodge bordering Tiger Canyon, which she hopes will also benefit from the international attention of photographers. He has also started construction on a five-star lodge, overlooking a craggy gorge of tumbled rocks.  It promises to offer same great food, great accommodation and silver service that makes Londolozi one of the greats in Africa.  And this is all because of tigers.

As a nature photographer who is drawn to working in true wilderness areas, I now have with a portfolio of fantastic tiger and cheetah photographs that I took in the Karoo. I am not sure that they are true wildlife photographs. Tiger Canyon is not a wilderness – yet. But are these perhaps the indulgent thoughts of an old-fashioned nature photographer – one who has had more opportunities than most in wilderness areas in Africa. For there is no doubt that if you want to photograph tigers there is no better place to visit than Tiger Canyon – and you may very well help save them from extinction.

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