A thrilling moment. Picture supplied
A thrilling moment. Picture supplied
The Tigers at Tiger Canyon are lords of the African veld. Picture supplied
The Tigers at Tiger Canyon are lords of the African veld. Picture supplied

Vanderkloof Dam, Free State - Like some Indian maharajah, he slipped into the pool, where he proceeded to recline gracefully. His coat glowed with health; muscles rippled; he was lord of his domain. While India is his home-land, he has found a place on the African plain, where he thrives.

Meet the tigers living on the fringes of the Vanderkloof Dam, in the Philippolis area of the Free State.

Conservationist and wildlife film-maker, John Varty, has stirred up a storm over the years with his project to establish a breeding population of tigers in South Africa. As their population declines in Asia, Varty has made it his life’s passion to give them a foothold on this continent.

It has been an uphill battle, but Tiger Canyons is said to be the only place in the world where the tiger population is increasing. At present some 20 animals, including cubs, are flourishing .

A day tour of Tiger Canyons is not only exciting, it inspires awe… that these magnificent creatures have thrived in a terrain so vastly different to steaming, shadowy jungles.

Prior to heading out, we watched a fascinating video, reflecting Varty’s work with the first two tigers introduced into Tiger Canyons, Ron and Julie. Bred in the US and hand-raised at Bowmanville Zoo in Canada, they were brought to this country, and trained by Varty and Dave Salmoni (a big-cat trainer and zoologist), in the art of stalking and hunting.

Then we boarded one of the specially adapted vehicles, which is enclosed by a sturdy cage. It’s advantage is that tigers can happily leap on the bonnet, or the roof – making for exciting, up-close encounters.

Before long, we came across the tiger mentioned in the opening paragraph who not only took a refreshing drink, but decided to cool off. We noticed it walked backwards into the water, and our ranger, Megan Heard, said this was because tigers never turn their backs on anything.

Tigers mating was next on the menu. Tibo (short for Tiger Bomb), the white tigress, was living up to her reputation. She’d been trying to lure Sunderban, a male, into her territory and in doing so had invaded the territory of her sister, Indira. She sported a few claw marks from Indira as a warning, but had disregarded the caution, as here she was bold as a hussy laying on all her charms, inviting Sunderban to mate.

He did not take much persuading. Megan told us couplings can take place from 104 to 115 times during the period of her oestrus, which lasts a couple of days.

As to Sunderban, he then strolled over to our vehicle, spraying, marking and urinating. In the process he sprayed copiously on a back passenger seat. It had a pleasant, familiar smell reminiscent of popcorn.

“Getting sprayed by a tiger is a sign of good luck,” said Megan.

Tigers, we learnt, are fully grown at five years and become sexually mature from four years onwards. We also learnt it is possible to work out who is related to whom in the tiger clan by markings on their cheeks.

The tigers at Tiger Canyons go by romantic names such as Ussuri, Mahindra, Indira, Shadow. In an attempt to manage the gene pool and prevent inbreeding, three of the males have been vasectomised. Two young cubs are also to be introduced. They are in a holding pen where they chase each other happily and clearly enjoy interaction with humans as well.

We also came across some of the wild cheetah – the first to be reintroduced into the Free State in 100 years. Shashe and Mara had only recently been released from their boma. They had stalked a steenbuck that morning, but only just failed to catch it. Now they were pretty hungry, so a warthog carcass was dragged to where they lay in the veld. Clearly they were hungry, but being used to fresh prey were pretty disdainful of this smelly offering and backed off.

The costs of maintaining Tiger Canyons must be stupendous: kilometre upon kilometre of fencing at least 3m high, and the land has to regularly be restocked with prey for hungry tigers, and now cheetah as well.

We had missed out on the sight of a tigress and her cubs frolicking in the veld (which guests travelling with Varty in the other vehicle spotted), but our reward was to play with the two cubs in the enclosure.

These youngsters were so adorable, all I wanted to do was cuddle them.

Baby bottles of milk arrived, and my boisterous young male cub promptly proceeded to chew a hole in the teat in his enthusiasm. Milk sprayed everywhere as he wriggled in delight, while I cooed and aaahed. For days afterwards I proudly showed people the minute scratches and barely-visible purplish mark from an enthusiastic little nip on my arm.

“Guess what made these?”

Needless to say, nobody ever guessed correctly.

Call 051 773 0063 or 082 892 4680 or see www.jvbigcats.co.za - Sunday Tribune