JV is one of the most visionary conservationists, film-makers and individuals around. But by many ill-informed, misinformed, uninformed, envious, jealous or simply stupid people, JV is maligned, discredited and ignored. I have to admit that before I met and became close friends with the man, worked closely with him, and saw what he tries to do, I probably fell into that ill-informed category.
But John Varty, and his younger brother Dave, are two individuals who make a difference, and have made a difference. As young teenagers, the boys inherited their grandfather's hunting block in what is today the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, adjoining Kruger Park. While all around them were urging them to sell the property - all it had was a mud hut and some lean-to's - they had a vision. That vision turned into Londolozi Private Game Reserve, pioneering the concept of luxury and up-market non-consumptive (photographic) safaris. In my travels as a wildlife photographer, and also author of the safari lodge book Simply Safari, I have visited at least 200 leading safari camps and lodges around Africa. Londolozi stands out above most of them for the quality of its wildlife, the quality of the guides, and the quality of its accommodations.
It is no surprise that Nelson Mandela, after his release from 27 years in prison in South Africa, visited Londolozi. He hailed the reserve and the Varty's as visionaries, and proclaimed this to be a model that South Africa could follow. "There, I saw people of all races living in harmony amid the beauty that mother nature offers. Londolozi represents a model of the dream I cherish for the future of nature preservation in our country."
Today, if you speak to many of the black African neighbours to the Sabi Sand reserves, you will find disdain and hatred for many of the owners of these private reserves. For the Vartys however, there is widespread respect, love and affection.
John Varty has always had an affinity for the Big Cats. It was he who learned how to habituate leopards to close viewing by safari vehicles, and much of the great leopard viewing guests enjoy throughout the Sabi Sand reserves can probably be traced back to the original leopard JV habituated to accept vehicles in close proximity. The manner in which safari guides move their vehicles around leopards nowadays, can also be traced back to his early experiments and observations. It is a technique and protocol that today is taught at guide training schools around Africa. JV has raised orphan lions and leopards, habituating them back into a life in the wild. He was friends with the great George Adamson, and spent much time in Kenya's Kora Reserve with that legendary Lion Man of Africa.
In the 1990's JV learned of the plight of the tiger. Here is the most iconic wildlife species on the planet, better known and loved even than lions and elephants, and it is in a parlous state. Numbers in the wild have plummeted to the extent that in most of their previous range-states in Asia they are nigh extinct. Last year, the Year of the Tiger, India announced they had about 1,400 tigers left. They have not been seen in the wild in China for 30 years or more. In other countries where they once were plentiful, numbers are down to a few hundred, or mere handfuls. According to the latest published figures there are some 3000 - 3500 wild tigers left alive. This number in reality is probably far fewer…perhaps as little as 1500, or less.
According to JV, the reality is that many of the range state countries attach little if any prominence to tiger conservation. Parks are small, unfenced and poorly policed. Tigers are worth much more dead than alive. Tiger tourism, which could earn huge sums for conservation, is minuscule compared with African Big Five tourism.
When JV first learned of the situation pertaining to tigers he tried to offer his assistance, his experience and knowledge gained in developing one of the finest private game reserves in the world. He soon learned his offers were being ignored, that there was little will on the part of tiger range-state governments, that many of the multitude of tiger conservation organizations were more concerned with protecting their own niches, their own nests, than protecting the tiger. JV traveled to tiger conservation conferences around the world…using his own hard-earned funds rather than public donations like so many of the other conservationists gathered there. He soon concluded that for many at these conferences the most important item on the agenda was deciding where the next conference might be held. Rio, Cannes, Casablanca, LA?
So Varty decided to do things independently, spend his own money earned through his shares in Londolozi, his revenue from his documentary films, his big cats safaris, on buying land for tigers, fencing this land with an expensive fence good enough to keep tigers in and others out, stocking it with expensive game for the tigers to hunt, and breeding a self-sustaining population of wild, free-ranging tigers that could, perhaps one day, be used to repopulate tiger reserves elsewhere in the world.
In 2000 he bought two zoo-bred tigers from Canada. His efforts to rehabilitate Ron & Julie became the subject of the documentary Living with Tigers, shown in more than 100 countries around the world. Julie has borne nine cubs since then. Ron was killed in a territorial fight with another tiger last year…they way most male tigers would die in the wild. JV also bought two other tigers to supplement his breeding stock, Shadow and Seatao. Today Tiger Canyons has 15 tigers…free ranging, able to hunt wild game. That's an almost 400% increase in the population…figures any other true tiger reserve can only dream about! Varty is currently looking to buy more land to establish a new tiger reserve in South Africa.
Of course, one of the criticisms from many who will denigrate JV is "tigers don't belong in Africa!" Or "tigers belong in Asia" and "you can't have lions and tigers and leopards and cheetahs together in one continent". It is hard to accept that tigers care where they live, or that future generations would prefer to see no tigers (in Asia) than wild tigers in Africa. Some fossil evidence indicates that tigers could once have roamed Africa. Lions, leopards and cheetah have called Asia home, along with tigers. Varty is not advocating nor trying to introduce tigers into established African game reserves alongside existing wildlife populations. His plan, his experiment, his proposal to all who will listen, is to buy failed farmlands and rehabilitate them under wildlife. Fence them and introduce tigers along with prey species. The tigers I have watched hunting springbok and blesbuck at Tiger Canyons don't seem fazed that these are not chital deer, sambar, gaur, nilgai or any other Asian species.
Another criticism I hear often regards JV's penchant for interacting with his subjects in his films. JV in fact pioneered the involvement and engagement of the film-maker (himself) in his documentaries 30 or more years ago. At the time it was ground-breaking, and subject to much comment (negative) from old school documentary makers. Today, however, most of the network channels won't accept films unless there is a human element, a degree of human interaction, a frisson of danger. JV has made more than 30 award-winning documentaries and one feature film, starring Brooke Shields, Martin Sheen and himself. Many if not most of them involve him along with the animals. The aforementioned Living with Tigers would not have been nearly as popular, would not have raised nearly as much interest in saving tigers, had there not been the human element. Julie, the "mother tiger" at Tiger Canyons today, retains an abiding trust in JV, a love if you will, much like your pet dog or cat shows love for you. JV has been with Julie for 12 years, yet she switches between wild tigress hunting for herself, raising wild young cubs, and cuddly companion with JV at will. It is something special to see…but JV himself will tell you that if Julie is not feeling "friendly" on any particular day she will let him know, and he stays away.
Perhaps one of the most idiotic and nonsensical criticisms is that "some experts feel that this is a money making venture by Varty in an attempt to earn money from the tourism industry." Apart from the fact that Tiger Canyons does not offer any of the trappings of the tourism industry offered, for example, by places such as Londolozi and that tourist visits there are basic, rudimentary and totally education based, JV's exact model for the conservation of tigers is just that: protect them in places where tourists can be assured of seeing tigers, where tigers can earn a share of the wildlife tourism dollar, where tigers can pay their way simply by being tigers. The Londolozi model, followed so successfully throughout Africa, makes perfect sense. If the Asian governments are not going to save tigers, let private individuals do it, on privately owned land, where they can fund tiger conservation through tourism. It is a concept followed not only by private landowners, but national parks throughout the world - wildlife needs to earn its keep. If it pays, it stays, is the oft-quoted refrain.
As I mentioned above, JV is a film-maker of huge acclaim. His documentaries are screened by the world's leading and most respected television channels, including National Geographic, Discovery and Animal Planet. Yes, JV uses his films of the tigers, and also lions and leopards and anything else, to fund his conservation projects, to buy land for tigers, to buy wild game for his tigers to hunt. Considering that a blesbuck can cost R1500 (about $200) each, a springbok more than R1000, a wildebeest R2000 or more...JV has a huge feed bill! Anyone who has visited JV at his home, has seen the car that he drives, the clothes he wears, will know that this is a man who does not spend much of his income on himself, or on the trappings of luxury.
Which brings us to the attack on JV. It was not perpetrated by Julie, nor by one of the two cubs he was forced to hand-rear when they were abandoned at birth (which are now living wild and free themselves). The tiger that attacked JV was a young male called Corbett, a son of Ron and Shadow now in its 4th year. JV was not out of the car with Corbett, he was not interacting with the tiger. In fact he did not see the tiger prior to being attacked from behind, and was simply closing a gate to an adjoining camp where Julie had been kept separated from the other tigers while she was in oestrus. (JV does not want her to breed more cubs until he has more land available.) Corbett, unseen behind the corrugated iron of an adjoining gate, lunged through with one powerful paw, hooked JV and pulled him into the gate, breaking three ribs with the impact. The tiger then began to savage him, though was unable to get its head through the gap in the gate to physically bite JV. Fortunately a film crew who were with JV managed to pull him free of the tiger's claws and rush him to a nearby doctor in Philippolis, prior to him being taken to hospital in Bloemfontein. JV spent almost 6 hours in theatre having his wounds attended to, followed by several days in the intensive care unit. The biggest danger now is the possibility of infection in the wounds, always a major threat with injuries from any of the big cats…or even your pet moggie at home.
JV, who recently published his autobiography Nine Lives, will no doubt return to his tigers and the other big cats he loves as soon as he is able. He is at pains to stress that Corbett was acting the way a wild male tiger would towards someone he saw as a male rival for an oestrus female. There is currently no suggestion that Corbett should be shot or euthanised. According to JV's ex, Gillian van Houten, who visited Tiger Canyons the day after the attack, Corbett was behaving normally when she saw him.
I wish JV a speedy recovery, and a speedy and successful return to his tigers and conservation projects. And I wish too that people who do not know the man, who have not visited his tiger project, would keep their mouths closed until they are better informed!