Thursday, March 28, 2024

Tigers in Africa


Sunset at Tiger Canyon

Yes, there are wild tigers in Africa, and yes, there are wild rhinos in Australia. Both areas were set up as backstop conservation models. Habitat destruction in Asia and poaching have reduced the wild tiger population worldwide to some 4,000 animals. Tigers in captivity exceed that, but there are still less than ten thousand individuals alive in total. Furthermore, there are important subspecies and varieties such as the white tigers (not albinos but a genetic variety). The only two wild white tigers in the world are at Tiger Canyon, a game reserve in South Africa.

Tigo, one of the "white" variety tigers

Two of Tigo's cubs, now youngsters
Not white. The gene is recessive.

Having a rough-and-tumble

I mentioned Tiger Canyon in my blog about photographer Marsel van Oosten a few weeks ago. After seeing his pictures and hearing the story of Tiger Canyon (which I didn’t know before), we were keen to visit. We managed to stay there for one night last month on our way from Knysna up to Olifants River Game Reserve, and it was wonderful. Tigers are magnificent animals, the largest and most beautiful of the big cats, and if these were in an adopted environment, they seemed to be very much at home there. They hunt and pull down large antelope. They are used to people, but so are lions at Olifants. People are ignored - they are not food, and as long as they don’t interfere they are tolerated. But there is no doubt that these animals are wild. No one would be tempted to go near them on foot. It wasn’t always like that way.

John Varty with Tigress Julie, founding members together

A well-known South African conservationist and film maker, John Varty, was the brains behind the project. Discouraged by a visit to various tiger reserves in India more than twenty years ago, he planned a conservation area for tigers in the center of South Africa. Although the area had been used to graze sheep in the past, he could see that the farms could be regenerated. That happened, and many local species of birds and small animals have returned over time. The large herbivore species beloved of the lions in the rest of Africa were reintroduced, but obviously there was concern about whether tigers would be willing and able to hunt them. The tigers are there to live wild, catch their own food, build their own social groups, breed. They are not in a zoo. No hunting means no food.

The tigers all originate from genetically diverse individuals who were originally in captivity, and it remains essential to introduce new blood. The road hasn’t been smooth. The project attracted controversy for all sorts of reasons. Rewilding big cats hasn’t always been successful. Would local livestock be in danger if the tigers escaped from the game reserve? (Yes.) Tigers are territorial and aggressive. Would that be a problem? (Yes, two tigers were killed by other tigers and now they are in three large but isolated areas.)

The story goes that John Varty approached local sheep farmers as someone interested in farming himself. The seller whose magnificent river canyon runs through his farm carefully didn’t mention it because it’s not great for sheep who sometimes fall off the rock cliffs. So Varty only discovered after the sale that he had some magnificent landscape on which to build a lodge, and great topography for tigers who like rocky outcrops.

Tigress Julie Lodge overlooking the canyon

The view of the canyon

Two of the smaller canyon inhabitants - rock hyrax

Varty calls Tiger Canyon a work in progress. There is still a long way to go. Much more land is needed so that the tigers can spread out and maintain their territories without violent aggression. The gene pool needs to grow. There are currently less than twenty tigers over 15,000 acres. But it’s a start. And just maybe one day it will be a vital repository of wild tigers.


  1. I did not know about this, Michael. Thanks so much for posting.

  2. Too cool, Michael. Like Wendall, I'd never heard about the project. As in digital media, multiple back-ups of endangered species is smart.

  3. Fascinating success story--and great photos!

  4. Thanks for the comments! Indeed, it's a strange thing seeing tigers in the Karoo, and not without controversy. But they have adapted amazingly well.