Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

Tigers for Africa

The Free State is probably the last place on earth you would associate with Bengal tigers, but a ground-breaking conservation project on the banks of the Vanderkloof Dam in Philippolis is helping to save the world’s most powerful cat. Mary Willemse jumps in the Ford Everest Sport and sets off to explore this enchanting, distinctly different destination.

When I phone my best friend, Charlotte, to invite her along for a weekend in search of tigers in the Free State, I could hear the surprise in her voice. Not that I could blame her. Wild tigers, in Africa? A crazy idea – maybe a little bit, yes. Visionary – absolutely! Not that the founder of this unique conservation project, John Varty (aka JV), was praised for his initiative when he started it more than two decades ago. Quite the contrary, as this South African filmmaker and passionate conservationist suffered substantial opposition.

Fast forward 21 years and this project is now certainly earning its stripes. Tiger Canyon in the small Free State town of Philippolis, skirting the arid Karoo region, is giving hope to this highly endangered apex predator in a very successful re-wilding process. Our host for the weekend, Kirsten Wise- Jarvis, explains that the project is now entering its third phase of expanding the land size and introducing other iconic African cats.

At present a total of 17 second, third and fourth generations of wild-born, wild-raised tigers roam the golden grasslands of Tiger Canyon, a 6 100ha private game reserve. The majority of them are completely self-reliant as hunters, breeders and defenders of territory. “It is incredibly special to see this progress. When JV brought out our first two tigers – Ron and Julie, born in a Canadian zoo – they were completely reliant on humans and now their offspring are consummate hunters, transferring their skills to their offspring and creating new bloodlines,” says Kirsten.

Stalking season

On our first drive out, we are treated to a stalking lesson by the exquisitely beautiful Oria and her brood when we encounter them in the open savannah. The boisterous cubs, who are now around 10 months old, are running amok with the small birds and ground squirrels in a scene that reminds me of the Lion King, when Mufasa and Zazu taught Simba to stalk prey. This first close encounter with the world’s most powerful cat leaves us breathless and intrigued. This place is so magical that no thesaurus has enough synonyms to describe the experience. We realise how incredibly blessed we are to sit here, the warm African sun on us, in one of only a handful of places in the world where tigers can be seen roaming freely.

JV’s ambitious plan was simple: preserve the tiger in the heart of South Africa. Along with Canadian wildlife trainer Dave Salmoni, he began the process of rewilding Ron and Julie, something that had never been done in Africa before. In fact, many similar projects in the tiger’s native habitat in Asia have failed. The debate still continues on whether tigers belong in Africa, but it is clear that their conservation has become a global problem – at present, only 3 500 of these magnificent cats are left in the wild. If the current trend continues, they will not survive living in the wild beyond 2050. The biggest threat is loss of habitat due to forest destruction, trophy hunting and the belief that specific body parts of a tiger have medicinal properties.

In 2013 Kirsten’s parents, Rodney and Lorna Drew, invested in Tiger Canyon after falling in love with the cause when they visited the reserve. Rodney took over as managing director and started to position Tiger Canyon as a game reserve of the future. “The future is about restoring land and allowing animals to live as natural lives as possible, whilst cherishing and protecting big cats from anywhere in the world if they are endangered,” explains Kirsten. “Just like Dr Ian Player helped save the white rhino from extinction in the 1960s through relocation to safer areas, we believe it is prudent to relocate even more tigers to Africa before it’s too late.”

Projects such as these indicate how the world has become a global village and that some conservation issues need not be resolved solely in the animals’ native range. The team at Tiger Canyon proactively created a population of wild tigers outside of Asia, in case extinction becomes a reality – no small feat. “To us, the answer to saving tigers from extinction lies in tourism and large areas of protected, fenced land,” says Kirsten. “And that is why it is important to establish Tiger Canyon as a sustainable tourism business, promoting it as an African safari with a difference.”

Our guide for the weekend, Byron Grobler, explains that like leopards, tigers are solitary and dominant males fight to the death. Here at Tiger Canyon, the tigers are divided into three camps – Tiger East, West and South – to prevent conflict between dominant males. The females maintain territories within the male’s range. On one of our drives, we notice “our mom”, Oria, sizing up the gorgeous and very rare white tigress Mishka through the fence. The intensity of the stares and growls is chillingly beautiful.

Our guide for the weekend, Byron Grobler, explains that like leopards, tigers are solitary and dominant males fight to the death. Here at Tiger Canyon, the tigers are divided into three camps – Tiger East, West and South – to prevent conflict between dominant males. The females maintain territories within the male’s range. On one of our drives, we notice “our mom”, Oria, sizing up the gorgeous and very rare white tigress Mishka through the fence. The intensity of the stares and growls is chillingly beautiful.

Cheetah encounters

In 2013, Tiger Canyon – in partnership with the Endangered Wildlife Trust – reintroduced the first wild cheetah into the Free State after an absence of more than 100 years, thus preserving native and non-native endangered species alongside each other. On the early morning drive on our second day, Byron gets word that one of the cheetahs has been spotted. Excited, we take off in the hope of getting a glimpse of this elusive cat. While Charlotte and I chat away, recounting the special moment witnessed between Mishka and Oria, Byron’s trained eyes spot the cheetah in the distance. Peeking through the binos, I can only see shrubs and think there must have been some kind of hallucinant in Byron’s morning coffee. Lo and behold, we are almost on top of Zambezi when we finally spot her, lazing in the early morning sun. Much to our surprise weare allowed to climb out of the game viewer to get up close. Not close enough to pat her (this is not a zoo, after all!), but close enough to count her eyelashes through my telephoto lens. Incredible! The reserve is also home to a wide range of naturally occurring wildlife. Birds such as the Blue Crane, our beautiful national bird, the Secretary bird, and a number of owl species are amongst the more than 100 bird species that can be spotted. Plains game such as zebra, eland, kudu, warthog, waterbuck, ostrich, springbok, red hartebeest and blesbok complete the paintinglike landscape. Nocturnal species like the porcupine, serval, aardvark, aardwolf, Cape fox, caracal and African wildcat bring the night to life. A perfect complement to the star-bright skies.

A visit to the Tigress Julie Lodge (named after the first female brought in from Canada) will immerse you in this picturesque Free State landscape, featuring some of the most exquisite sunsets I have ever seen, not to mention watching the sun rise over the gorge from the comfort of my bed. Tiger Canyon is an engaging, emotional experience, inspired by a community with the common purpose of ensuring the survival of these big cats. It’s a chance to witness first-hand the evolutionary leap thesetigers have taken, from their threatened ancestral home in Asia to Africa. We urge you to visit. The combination of the lodge with its clear skies and golden colours at dawn and dusk, the passion of the guides, and the cats themselves, make for a powerful encounter with nature that leaves all who visit changed forever.

About Tiger Canyon

Tiger Canyon is a partnership between humans, an ecosystem and endangered species set on the banks of the lesser-known Vanderkloof Dam in the small Free State town of Philippolis. Around seven hours from Johannesburg and three hours from Bloemfontein, the exclusive lodge is perched unobtrusively on the edge of a dramatic rocky gorge. The lodge is solar-powered and completely off-grid, with solar water geysers maximising the benefit of the region’s abundant sunlight. The menu is inspired by food and herbs grown in the area, and staff interested in sharpening their culinary skills learn from acclaimed chefs who develop the menu with them.

The three luxury suites each boast a private deck overlooking the canyon with an outside shower and a cosy fireplace. Guests are treated to two guided game drives per day to experience incredible sightings of the cats, or simply enjoy the vast open beauty of the land.

Tiger Canyon arguably boasts the best wild tiger photographic opportunities in the world. The tigers can be found in any number of striking natural settings ranging from grasslands to rocky outcrops to verdant reed dams. The cats are all habituated to the game-viewing vehicles, allowing you to get close enough to feel their energy. The highly trained guides are able to place photographers at the best vantage points while informing guests about tiger behaviour. These photographic safaris uniquely blend dedicated conservation with artistic passion, creating a space to be inspired while capturing truly remarkable wildlife images.

*Tiger Canyon is currently running incredible discounts for South African residents, so now is the time to book a visit to this fantastic reserve.

CONTACT: +27 71 607 9279 | info@tigercanyon.com |www.tigercanyon.com

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