Tigers in the Karoo

Karoo tigers
Karoo tiger
Tigers are very playful around water while they’re young.

By Julienne du Toit

Maverick conservationist John Varty walks down a bushveld path, a bag of meat-cubes at his waist and a thin stick in his hand.

Trailing him is a tumble of tigers, some of the very few ‘tame’ ones at Tiger Canyons outside Philippolis in the southern Free State. They’re part of a grand experiment in rewilding tigers born in captivity.

Karoo tigers
Tiger mother and cub.

Tiger numbers are tumbling every year around the world, even in national parks.

India and all tiger countries are seeing a steady decline in numbers because of poaching and other issues. In Indonesia and Malaysia, rubber and palm oil companies are devastating tiger land. In Siberia, loggers are the problem. In the Mekong, a network of dams and roads are fragmenting the wilderness where they once thrived, says Varty. In China, the last wild tiger was seen in the 1980s.

Karoo tigers
Captive-bred tigers were taught to hunt.

And yet in the Karoo, dozens are thriving and learning to be wild, because Varty has a crazy dream of safeguarding Asia’s tigers, much in the same way Africa’s rhinos were safeguarded by sending them all over the world in the 1960s.

The tigers ended up near Philippolis because the Free State province’s predator laws were lenient. But the choice of land bordering the Vanderkloof Dam has proven serendipitous. It’s rough hilly country, with spectacular canyons and plenty of trees and water, passably similar to India’s northwestern areas.

Karoo tiger
This Karoo area proved perfect, with plenty of water.

Tiger Canyons is one of two such sanctuaries near this town.

“I have modeled my project on the Arabian Oryx saved by the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona and now successfully returned to the Middle East,” says Varty. “In South Africa species have been saved from extinction largely by private enterprises working with national and provincial parks. I believe the tiger will be saved the same way.”

  • For more information on Tiger Canyons, call 051 773 0063 or 082 892 4680.
  • All images by Daryl and Sharna Balfour.
  • For a photographic safari with Daryl & Sharna Balfour at the tigers, or elsewhere, see their website at www.wildphotossafaris.com
Karoo tigers
Tiger numbers are plummeting in Asia.



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  1. Pingback: Downtime in the Karoo | Karoo Space

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