Tiger Ice Break: Tigress Ussuri’s cubs try to reach water beneath ice.


Ussuri and cubs at Tiger Canyons, South Africa
Ussuri and cubs at Tiger Canyons, South Africa

Tiger Ice Break: Tigress Ussuri’s cubs try to reach water beneath ice 

In the coldest winter ever at Tiger Canyons, South Africa, Ussuri’s cubs try to break the ice on la Vea Dam to reach the water underneath. Ussuri teach the cubs how to do this.

Investing in Wild Tigers by John Varty

By John Varty 

Photo: JV and THE BIG CATS
Photo: JV and THE BIG CATS

Hello Friends,  

Thank you for the many phone calls, emails and comments concerning the last newsletter (newsletter no. 89). They are much appreciated and apologies that I cannot answer each and every one, however, I will try to answer some of your questions.  

Financial Investment:

As a businessman, you will ask the question: “What is the return on my investment?” The answer is, it is not a good one compared to other investments. Money can be made out of tigers by photographing them, filming them and hunting male tigers. I will immediately dismiss the hunting, although lucrative, it is illegal and unethical. 

The photographic potential is huge and growing rapidly for the simple fact that the tiger countries in Asia have not conserved the tiger. Even in India, the traditional stronghold of the tiger, tourists are having bad experiences. Large amounts of money are being laid out on safaris that produce no good sightings and few good pictures. The last remaining habituated tigers are surrounded by many vehicles, all jostling for position. This further destroys the experience.  


The alternative to Asia is to invest in an ex-situ conservation project in South Africa. However, to get to view the tiger, one must first buy suitable land. This is expensive. Once you have the land, you must then fence it with a 3.3 metre electrical fence. This cost is around R130,000 per kilometer (a lion only needs a 2.4 metre electrical fence). Having fenced the land, you need to stock with suitable prey. (A blesbuck will cost you R1,500 per head, a blue wildebeest R2,500 per head).

After stocking and fencing, you need to build a lodge to accommodate your guests. Therefore, at a million rands per bed, an 8 bed lodge will set you back R8 million.  

The most efficient way to get your guests in, is to fly them, so you need a tarmac runway suitable for jets. This will set you back several million rands.  

To run your lodge and tiger safaris, you will need trained staff and you will need to pay them well to compete with other operations. (Tourism remains the best way to create jobs in Africa).  

Staff need proper accommodation and this too is expensive. The old staff accommodation on sheep farms is unacceptable.  

Only now can you start to get a return on your money and you will have to run high occupancies to be profitable.  

The fact that you have wild tigers, gives you a competitive edge but it doesn’t guarantee you success. You are competing against many fine established private lodges and National Parks in South Africa, Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania.  

The key is to build the tiger experience into a package to the south which includes shark diving, whale watching and the garden route. To the north, packages with Kruger National Park,  private lodges and Mozambique will be very successful.

Environmental Return:  

The areas around Tiger Canyons have been subjected to sheep farming for over a hundred years. Man-made desertification has damaged the ‘Garden of Eden’. (Fortunately, sheep farming is a failing land use system). The good news is that the land can be restored if you are prepared to partnership with nature.  

One of the most rewarding things that I have done in my life, is to release large tracts of land by removing sheep fences. In addition, by closing the windmills, the water table lifts and fountains begin to flow. Mini migrations return as the animals can now move. Birds, fish, frogs and insects all respond as step by step the ‘Garden of Eden’ returns to its former glory.  

All of this is dependant on the tiger and the people who will come to see and photograph it. If large enough tracts of land can be assembled, lion, leopard, tiger and cheetah can all co-exist in one park. This would be unique in the world. 

Spiritual Investment: 

As the worlds human population moves towards 10 billion, more and more people are looking to move away from the mega-cities to the small towns and rural areas. People are searching for a healthier, simpler and more spiritual existence. People are searching for projects which bring meaning to their own lives and to those of endangered species. 

To take a tiger (there are 1,000 wild tigers left and we are losing one wild tiger every day), nurture it,  release it onto the land, protect it, and see it produce cubs, is certainly the most spiritual thing that I have ever done in my life.  


If you are looking for a good financial return on your money, you are looking in the wrong place. If you are looking to speculate by raising land prices, this is not for you.  

If you have dollars or euros which are strengthening against the rand, you start with an enormous advantage. If you are prepared to buy into the ‘Greater Cause’ which includes: 

1) Helping save the tiger. 

2) Creating jobs in depressed communities.  

3) Up-skilling and uplifting people to work in the tourist industry.  

If you are prepared to include the financial, environmental and spiritual investment and are like-minded, then feel free to contact me.  

In the last newsletter (newsletter no. 89), I listed at random, several wealthy individuals and the investments they have made. This was not criticism. They are fine and worthwhile investments. I was merely pointing out that no one individual has picked up the ‘Tiger Cause’ and there may be an opportunity there.  

Tread Light

Managing the Genes

In line with management policy at Tiger Canyons, the largest and most productive male, Seatao has been vasectomised. In a two hour operation, Dr. Charlotte Mouiex  performed the vasectomy.

Dr Charlotte Mouiex  cuts the tube that transports the sperm on Tiger Seatao
Dr Charlotte Mouiex cuts the tube that transports the sperm on Tiger Seatao

After the operation, Seatao was weighed and tipped the scales at 222 kilograms. During the weighing, Seatao woke up briefly, causing some consternation amongst the workers lifting him.

Seatao tips the scales at 220kg
Seatao tips the scales at 220kg

Seatao joins Shy Boy and Tiger Boy as the third male to be vasectomised at Tiger Canyons. Seatao fathered Tigress Julie’s second litter of three of which Sundarban and Zaria survive. (Shine, the third cub and a white tigress was killed in an attempted theft (See newsletter 38).

Seatao has been the most prolific breeding male at Tiger Canyons, fathering cubs with both Julie and Shadow
Seatao has been the most prolific breeding male at Tiger Canyons, fathering cubs with both Julie and Shadow

Seatao also fathered Julie’s third litter of five of which four: Indira, Mahindra, Tibo (white tigress) and Ussuri (has three small cubs) all survive.

Shadow has also produced a litter of cubs fathered by Seatao, of which an unknown number survive. I believe some of the cubs were killed by Julie. (See newsletter 83).

In a recent mating between Tibo and Shy Boy, Tibo instinctively knows that Shy Boy (vasectomised) cannot impregnate her. Therefore, after five copulations, she began to seek out another male, calling from the high rocks. Eventually, a desperate Tibo left her territory to pursue Sundarban. Sundarban, however, showed little interest in copulating with Tibo.

I had seen this behaviour before when Sundarban allowed Mahindra to mate with Panna when Panna was in full oestrus and was vigorously pursuing Sundarban.

Jenna Drew (studying veterinary science) had made the observation previously that Sundarban seemed to have a condition called ‘cryptochid’ (This is when the testicles are inside the body).

After vasectomising Seatao, I asked Dr. Charlotte Mouiex to dart Sundarban so we could do a thorough inspection. Sure enough, Sundarban has the condition ‘cryptochid’. His testicles are inside the body and therefore the temperature of the sperm is too high to be productive. On doing a sonar scan, we were unable to find any testicles at all.

Sundarban has the condition called cryptochid which is where the testicles are internal to the body and therefore the temperature of the sperm is too high
Sundarban has the condition called cryptochid which is where the testicles are internal to the body and therefore the temperature of the sperm is too high

In newsletter 74, I told you about the new tiger behaviour when Sundarban and Mahindra formed a coalition similar to male lions. I now believe that Sundarban’s ‘cryptochid’ condition makes his libido and hence his aggression much lower than normal breeding males.

Having said this, Sundarban has been in several brutal fights (See newsletter 74) and has ousted Shy Boy and Tiger Boy from their territories. Therefore his desire to control as much territory as possible remains the same, while he is libido remains low.

In fact, as he expands his territory, he is moving perilously close to Ussuri’s den site. If he beats up Sariska (the father of Ussuri’s cubs) and takes Sariska’s territory, he could well kill the cubs. However, the theory behind this, is that Sundarban would kill the cubs to bring Ussuri into oestrus so he can inject his own genes. Sundarban does not have any genes to inject because he’s ‘cryptochid’ so would he worry to kill the cubs? I will be sure to keep you informed as things develop!

Sariska, father of Ussuri's cubs, showing normal testicles outside the body
Sariska, father of Ussuri’s cubs, showing normal testicles outside the body

The breeding males presently at Tiger Canyons are Corbett and Sariska from the Shadow gene line and Mahindra from the Julie gene line. Kumba (twelve weeks old) will eventually become the third gene line called the ‘Aurora’ gene line at Tiger Canyons.

The Tiger Canyons experiment continues to produce new facts in the fields of veterinary science, genetics, territorial behaviour and communication.

The genetic profiling of all the tigers and cheetah is presently underway, which will help us take some of the difficult decisions when it comes to managing the genes.

Tread Lightly on the Earth

Credits: John Varty – Tiger Canyons

Capturing the Moment by John Varty

It gives me the great pleasure to announce the winner of the Tigress Julie Photo Competition for 2013. It is Marion Volborn. Congratulation Marion. I look forward to welcoming you and your husband on a Big Cat Safari.

Marion’s outstanding picture of the steam coming out of the Tigers mouth, illustrates the advantage of visiting Tiger Canyons in the mid winter (June, July). Shot against the rising sun the backlight  beautifully illuminates the steam. Marion’s picture captures this perfectly.


Canon EOS-1D Mark IV
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
1/1600 Sek;   f/2,8;   ISO 400

My desire was to take a photo of a tiger in the morning with breathing against the light. Only on the last day so I managed a photo and I was overjoyed.

Few who witnessed the brutal fight between Shy Boy and Sunderban (as told in Newsletter No 74) will forget the primeval scene as these two huge male tigers, steam rising from their mouths a  bodies, fought for territory in the Tiger River.

Marion’s picture captured a less brutal fight between Tigress Shadow and her daughter Panna. Both tigers rear up, protecting their throat and spine, throwing the paws forward, claws extended, with blinding speed.


Canon EOS-1D Mark IV
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
1/1000 Sek;   f/2,8;   ISO 1600

Shadowwalked slowly toward Panna. There was a small dispute. Shadow showed Panna that she is the dominant female cat.

There were many outstanding pictures entered and none better than Dudley Steenkamp’s “Flying Leopard”:


Nikon D3s.
70-200 f2.8 GII VR lens.
Manual settings:
Shutter 1/800sec
ISO 250
Flash +2 exposure bias.

Lions will instinctively kill any prey-competing predator they happen upon, especially predators that could present a danger to their young – like leopards. 

The leopard in this photo had inadvertently strolled past the concealed ‘den’ of a heavily pregnant lioness. She was not about to tolerate a male leopard near her soon-to-be-born cubs so she instinctively attacked.  The leopard narrowly escaped her initial charge and did the only thing he could do, he hastily raced up the nearest tree. For several terror stricken hours he was trapped in the tree by the pregnant lioness.  The expectant mother would simply not allow a fully grown male leopard in close proximity to her young cubs.  The stand-off dragged on, with the lioness frequently climbing as high into the tree as she could reach, at times coming to within about a meter or two of the leopard before the branches would no longer support her weight, only to retreat and try again later.  At her every attempt the leopard was forced to retreat high up into the thinner branches at the top of the tree.  The standoff had to an end somehow – sooner or later.  I was there when it ended, camera at the ready… 

The distressed leopard finally decided to take his chances.  A leap followed by a dash for freedom would mean potential injury for him on ground impact, that misfortune would spell certain and instant death in the jaws of the lioness – the stakes were high, the pregnant lioness was not going to simply walk away, the leopard knew that too.  His moment finally came when the lioness appeared to be looking away.  In a dash of speed he leapt from the tree, hitting the ground with a bone crunching thud.  I was fortunate to get this airborne shot as he flew through the air. 

The lioness immediately set off in chase but her heavily pregnant state was too much for her to compete against the speed of a fully grown male leopard in his prime.  In a blazing flash he got clean away, his gamble had worked – this time… 

Kemlyn Perry’s picture of the Tiger jumping onto a rock and Bridgena Barnard’s picture of the leopard hoisting its prey both show the athletism of the tiger and the leopard. In addition both pictures capture the part the long tail plays as it counter balances the cats.

45Alex Kirichko’s picture of the leopard stalking over the log is exceptional. The haunting eyes and the intense concentration typify a leopard closing on its kill.

6Tigers will often mate 150 times over a period of 4 days. The copulation can be painful for the female so she turns and swats the male ordering him to dismount. Nalin Trivedi’s picture has captured this perfectly in this mating sequence.

7I would like to thank Marsel van Oosten and Daniella Sibbing for judging this year competition.

Please begin preparing for next year Tigress Julie Photographic Competition which is one picture of a lion, a leopard, a cheetah and a tiger. The same format will apply. Each shot scores points out of 10. The points are added up and the person with the highest points is the overall winner. The judges for the Tigress Julie Photo Competition 2014 are Jos & Yvette van Bommel. The closing date is 15 November 2014.

The prize is 3 nights at Londolozi and 3 nights at Tiger Canyons for 2 people. Good luck to all of you.

In remembering the beautiful tigress Julie who died  on the same day as Nelson Mandela (see Newsletter No 86) I have renamed the Savannah Fund , the Tigress Julie Foundation. In addition I have called the photographic competition, The Tigress Julie Photographic Competition.

In a moving ceremony, several close friends of Julie have planted trees on her grave.

This year’s Big Cat Cub Safaris have started well. Ussuri has 3 cubs (ten weeks old). Ussuri has already  used 6 different den sites. The dens are truly spectacular rocky outcrops. We have been fortunate to access all the den sites and the cubs 2 males and a female have become very habituated. Many outstanding pictures have been captured. Bring your long lenses for best results.

8Video of Ussuri and her cubs:

I am proud to announce that the cheetah area (about 1000 hectares) is ready and shortly Sabi and Runde (2 males), Shashe and Mara (2 females) will be released into the area. The photographic potential is spectacular as we help these 4 cheetah to become fully fledged wild cheetah.

9I would like to thank Rodney and Lorna Drew for creating this fine area and Kevin and Basil Drew for constructing an excellent fence.

Wishing you all a successful big cat 2014 with many beautiful pictures.

Tread Lightly on the Earth

Credits: Tiger Conservation – John Varty