Tigers ‘rewilded’ at your doorstep

Bird, the largest tiger at the reserve, weighs about 300 kg he strolls by the fence of his share of the open veld as he guards it against rival males. Wild Bengal tigers are highly territorial and often fight to the death over territory so at Tiger Canyon adult males live separately. PHOTOS: PIERCE VAN HEERDEN

When entering Tiger Canyon it is hard to imagine a magnificent wild tiger prowling the grounds. Yet, as soon as you spot one of the seventeen Bengal tigers it is as if the exotic cats were made for the southern Free State veld. In fact, you could be forgiven for not immediately spotting one as their orange fur and black stripes camouflage well against the golden landscape.

Tiger Canyon, about 25 km from Philippolis, is indeed a jewel of the province. Not only because it is a tourist destination of note but because the protection of the endangered cat is at its heart. The founder of the project to ‘rewild’ tigers, is renowned conservationist John Varty, who was concerned for the dying population of wild tigers in the lush green jungles of Asia.

Field ranger Connor Thompson gives visitors the ultimate safari experience at Tiger Canyon.

Presently there are less than 3800 of these big cats left in the world. Varty bought two zoo-born cubs and introduced them to the Karoo landscape where they adapted well enough to have four generations of completely wild tigers. This is the only place you will see wild tigers outside of Asia.

Bloemfontein Courant visited the reserve, and as we entered we were greeted by Tibo, a white tiger and her three cubs, two of which are also white. Field Ranger Connor Thompson explained that although the tigers are used to vehicles they live without human interaction so they can hunt, grow and bond on their own.

“Our plan is to grow the tigers and be able to return them to the areas that need them. We aim to produce viable, genetic, self-sustaining tigers to replenish the number of tigers in Asia,” said Thompson.

Tibo, the only adult white tiger at the reserve, has a brood of three cubs. The highly territorial big cats have to be separated to keep the peace but enjoy hectares of land to roam and hunt at Tiger Canyon. 

Varty’s partner in the project, Rodney Drew, first visited Tiger Canyon in 2009 and fell in love with it so much that within a year he re-visited the conservation park about ten times with his family. “My family and myself were just taken by the tigers and the reserve that from that point onwards I planned my exit from the corporate world,” said Drew. In 2016 the engineer from the urban jungle of Johannesburg turned to cultivating a tiger’s jungle in the African veld.

Through his efforts Tiger Canyon has expanded into a luxury lodge where guests can safari by day and rest surrounded by the sounds of the Karoo by night. Rooms overlook the deep rocky canyon that stretches into the Orange River.

Tiger Canyon also directly contributes to the community around it by sharing resources with new farmers. It is the main employer of residents of Philippolis and a number of residents have been able to pursue careers in hospitality and tourism since the reserve was established.

For more information on Tiger Canyon visit http://tigercanyon.com/.

– Nomaqhawe Mtebele