Tigers in the Karoo?


In Long Walk to Freedom, Madiba refers to a debate between Robben Island prisoners about the existence of tigers in Africa. One group maintained tigers are exotic and only found in zoos, while the other group argued a healthy population of tigers exists in Africa.

To settle their minds, the tiger as we know it never existed in Africa, it evolved in Asia. The ancestor that it shares with lions and leopards did occur in Africa before migrating out of Africa around two million years ago. Nevertheless, the discussion of tigers in Africa is still prominent, perhaps more so than ever – there are 19 wild Bengal tigers in South Africa on a 6 100ha private game reserve in the Free State, called Tiger Canyon.

tigers fighting
Image by Graham Kearney

The tiger conservation landscape is turbulent with the provocative Chinese standpoint on tiger bone trade and the recent reclassification of tiger subspecies. Tiger Canyon is already a superb and safe place to view and photograph wild tigers, but it still needs to prove its conservation relevance. It’s a long road ahead, but based on the level of investment and dedication at Tiger Canyon, the reserve has the potential to be an exciting space for tiger conservation.

Tiger Canyon might be on the horizon of tiger conservation, but where is the project currently and how did it start?

How did wild Bengal tigers get to the Karoo?

The project started in 2000 when big cat expert and maverick conservationist, John Varty, obtained two tigers from a Canadian zoo. His ambitious plan was to preserve the tiger in the heart of South Africa. Along with Canadian wildlife trainer Dave Salmoni, Varty began the process of rewilding two tiger cubs, Ron and Julie, in Africa, something that had never been done before. The process is well recorded in the documentary Living with Tigers.

wild tigers in Philippolis
Image by Graham Kearney

Varty successfully taught the tigers to hunt and survive on their own in the reserve. Their wild descendants, as well as new bloodlines, now roam free at Tiger Canyon. Unfortunately, a catfight among the investors in the mid-2000s, on a previous property and under a different name, plunged the pioneering conservation plan into controversy. The politics among the people overshadowed the original idea, but the legal battle that followed was finally settled in 2013. In the same year, Rodney Drew and his wife Lorna invested in Tiger Canyon. Drew exited a 30 year career in corporate Johannesburg in 2016 and took over as managing director of Tiger Canyon at the end of 2017.

Drew comes from an engineering management background and is tasked with professionalising the business. Varty is consulted on tiger issues, considering his wide knowledge of big cats, and Salmoni is no longer involved at all.

The debate still continues on whether tigers belong in Africa, but conservation has become a global problem.

The purpose of the Philippolis tigers

“Tiger Canyon is an ex-situ conservation project that has established a thriving wild population of tigers outside their native range,” explains Drew. Another example of an ex-situ project is the Australian Rhino Project, with South Africa moving rhino to Australia. Projects such as these indicate how we live in a global village and that some conservation issues need not be resolved solely in the animals’ native range.  “We have proactively created a population of wild tigers outside of Asia, in case extinction becomes a reality,” states Drew.

Whether tigers belong in Africa remains a debate among many

But do South Africa’s tigers hold any conservation value? Can these tigers contribute successfully to wild tiger preservation in their native range? The Karoo tigers are free-roaming and are self-sufficient tigers. Unlike their captive-bred counterparts they have the potential to restock wildlife reserves. An added bonus is they are vehicle habituated, allowing the game viewing vehicles (not the open type from Big Five reserves) to get close up. With the exception of the first generation hand-raised, rewilded tigers, none of the current tigers have had human interaction.

The tigers at Tiger Canyon are Bengal tigers, although they could be a hybrid having originated from Canada. Tiger Canyon is in the process of mapping their tiger’s genetics to steer future breeding management decisions.

wild free roaming white tiger at tiger canyon
Image by Graham Kearney

While white tigers are a draw card for photographers and tourists, they do not form part of any credible breeding programs going forward, for reasons highlighted in the Species Survival Plan. The last known wild white Bengal tiger was shot in the wild in 1958. In American zoos, all white tigers originate from one founder Bengal white tiger. All offspring are thought to have come from this founder tiger. There is also speculation that the white tiger has been crossed with the Amur tiger to increase its size.

The gravitas of Tiger Canyon will increase when the first wild Philippolis tiger restock a reserve in Asia. “We are currently in the process of bringing our existence and successes to the attention of various Asian reserves and authorities,” says Drew. Delegates from Indian Parks have visited the reserve twice in the past, particularly to learn about the rewilding process. With the correct measures in place, Tiger Canyon has the potential to play a role in restocking national parks in Asia.

Tiger conservation in Asia

The Bengal tiger’s native range is pretty much India which is home to 60% of the world’s wild Bengal tigers. The problem in India is not a lack of breeding stock; it is a shrinking range and human-tiger conflict.

The Global Tiger Recovery Programme (GTRP) is working towards doubling the wild tiger populations in their native range by 2022. One of the programme’s primary focuses is to effectively manage, preserve, protect, and enhance tiger habitats. Nepal has successfully increased its Bengal tiger population to 235 animals, up from 120 Bengal tigers in 2009. While some subspecies populations are increasing, others are on the decline. Tigers are listed as ‘possibly extinct’ in Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea and parts of China, according to IUCN. The GTRP highlights that translocation programmes maybe needed for Cambodia and Vietnam.

It is heart-breaking to think, that by the time my children,  George, Charlotte and Louis, are in their 20s; elephant, rhino and tigers might well be extinct in the wild.

Prince William on 11 October, 2018 at the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in London 

male bengal tiger patrolling his territory
Image by Graham Kearney

Facts about tiger conservation

  • The IUCN Red list of Endangered Species lists certain subspecies of tiger as critically endangered (extremely high risk of extinction in the wild).
  • Tigers regularly top the WWF list as the most traded endangered species in the world.
  • Tigers inhabit some of the most populated areas in the world and are threatened by poaching, habitat loss, human wildlife conflict and traditional medicine markets for tiger bone and wine.
  • As of October 2018, there are six subspecies of tiger Sumatran (Panthera tigris sumatrae), Amur (Panthera tigris altaica), Bengal (Panthera tigris tigris), Indochinese (Panthera tigris corbetti), South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) and Malayan (Panthera tigris Jacksoni).
  • Extinct tiger subspecies: The Bali tiger (Panthera tigris balica), Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) and Javan tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica)

Why have tigers in the Free State?

At the time of setting up the project, the Free State provincial government was willing to grant permits for an exotic predator. According to Drew, the southern Free State has a very low population density, about two people per square km as compared to 380 in India. Drew claims Tiger Canyon is in the right place to help the tiger species. “We have extremely capable vets locally available and many prey species suited to tigers. Since returning the land to wildlife and providing permanent water using solar powered pumps, we’ve picked up the return of rare indigenous species on our camera traps like serval, caracal, black footed cat, aardwolf, cape fox, aardvark and porcupine,” says Drew.

blue cranes
South Africa’s national bird at Tiger Canyon. Image by Graham Kearney

“To me the answer to saving tigers from extinction lies in tourism and large areas of protected, fenced land,” says Drew. The world quality conservation fences at Tiger Canyon ensure people and tigers do not come into conflict and are protected.

Asian tigers adapt to a wide range of habitats. At Tiger Canyon the tigers, being ambush predators, are typically found among the reeds, rocky outcrops and riverbeds, unless they are patrolling their territorial boundary. The grasslands, less suitable for tigers, provide a refuge for indigenous species such as springbok, aardvark, blue crane, secretarybird, zebra, wildebeest, blesbok and the tiger’s preferred food source, warthog. Formally barren Karoo farmland has been transformed into a truly magnificent ecosystem, as indigenous wildlife slowly returns. Over the last three years about 800 springbok have been released onto the reserve.

wild tiger cubs running with springbok in South Africa
Image by Lorna Drew

Tiger Canyon stands in stark contrast to other big cat facilities in the Free State.  The Free State happens to be the heart of the controversial canned lion industry, something employees of Tiger Canyon do not identify with. “We clearly stipulate that no hunting has nor ever will take place at Tiger Canyon,” says Drew. “To date, Tiger Canyon has also not accepted any tigers from petting facilities.” With the exception of rewilding domestic tigers in the past, no human contact takes place with tigers or cubs in the reserve.

Tigress Julie Lodge
Tigress Julie Lodge. Image by Graham Kearney

Tiger Canyon also plays a significant role in the proud Karoo town of Philippolis. They currently employ 30 people from this community making them one of the biggest employers. All the employees who work at the exclusive Tigress Julie Lodge have been selected and trained from local residents. Even more jobs are created on projects like fencing, road building and housing structures. Philippolis is a potential stopover point between Cape Town and Johannesburg and has a number of declared heritage sites. Despite this, unemployment rates are high. A recent joint project involved Tiger Canyon providing an excavator and two bull-dozers to repair the community garbage dump. “We really hope to benefit the town of Philippolis in a meaningful way as the reserve grows and becomes financially viable,” says Drew.

The current situation at Tiger Canyon

Tiger Canyon is in its infancy and is limited by land size and resources. Currently, second, third and fourth generations of wild-born, wild-raised tigers reside at Tiger Canyon. Tigers lead a ferocious lifestyle. A female called Panna was recently killed by another territorial tigress, leaving three orphan one year old cubs that are surviving on their own. The bodies of deceased tigers are not removed, as in the wild other tigers interact with the bones – as part of their social behaviour. Like leopards, tigers are solitary and dominant males fight to the death. The tigers are divided into two camps, Tiger East and Tiger West to prevent conflict between dominant males. The females maintain territories within the male’s range. A new area, Tiger South, is currently being fenced to accommodate the 12 cubs when they disperse. The vision for Tiger Canyon is to have a 50 000ha reserve, big enough to sustain a self-regulated, less-intensively managed tiger population.

canyon in the karoo free state
Image by Graham Kearney

Challenges facing Tiger Canyon

The success of Tiger Canyon lies with its management and ability to draw tourists to help fund overheads; although other individuals have expressed interest in investing. There is no rule book for this pioneering project, as it has not been done before. To their credit they have successfully rewilded tigers.

Tiger Canyon will have to comply with scientific standards to be taken seriously by conservationists, otherwise run the risk of becoming a pseudo reserve – great for local wildlife and tourism but ineffective for tiger conservation. On the other hand, the willingness of credible tiger organisations, governments and non-governmental organisations to engage with management of Tiger Canyon is part and parcel of the project’s impending success. Drew is open to engage.

tiger canyon
Image by Graham Kearney

One of the challenges in the foreseeable future is new bloodlines. “If we have to bring in a new captive tiger to improve the gene pool, it’s likely we would have to hand raise and then rewild again; unless we trade a wild adult tiger from Asia,” explains Drew.

In the tiger debate, Mandela maintained that because there was a Xhosa word for tiger, they must once have existed in Africa; perhaps they can. There are still uncertainties surrounding the project but what is clear is that it is entering a new phase. Time is running out for debate, it is now time for action.

Written by Georgina Lockwood

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