Tiger Canyon

After spending three days in Mokala National Park, we continued our journey down to Tiger Canyon Game Reserve. This reserve is located 25 km west of the town of Philippolis positioned on the Free State side of the Van der Kloof dam in the Karoo of South Africa.

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Tiger Canyon is a conservation project to preserve the remaining Bengal tiger species. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) there are about 4 500 tigers left in the wild. This reserve has the only wild population of tigers outside of Asia.

The reserve was established by conservationist John Varty (JV). It is an ex-situ experiment which began in 2000 with the rewilding of two captive-born cubs, Ron and Julie, which JV acquired from a zoo in Canada. The first step was to see if these cubs could be rewilded in Africa, and learn to successfully hunt indigenous game in the long grass and rocky outcrops of the Karoo. This rewilding process worked with JV teaching the cubs to survive and hunt in the Upper Karoo region of South Africa. The two founder cubs thrived encouraging the later introduction of two more captive-born cubs, Shadow and Seatao. Once adult, these four tigers went on to establish a breeding population which over last twenty years resulted in 11 wild tigers and 11 wild-born cubs at Tiger Canyon. The first wild cubs were born at Tiger Canyon in 2008. In 2014, two new tigers were introduced to diversify the genetic line.

“The world is waiting for a new direction. One based on Nature.” ~ John Varty

Varty’s partner in the project, Rodney Drew, first visited Tiger Canyon in 2009. Inspired by the project, Rodney and Lorna Drew purchased adjoining land in order to expand the reserve. Tiger Canyon now comprises 6 100 hectares. The Drew’s are now major shareholders in Tiger Canyon and Rodney is the managing director.

Since 2017, IUCN has recognised two tiger subspecies, commonly referred to as the Continental tiger and the Sunda Island tiger. All remaining Island tigers are found only in Sumatra, with tigers in Java and Bali now extinct. These are popularly known as Sumatran tigers. The continental tigers currently include the Bengal, Malayan, Indochinese and Amur (Siberian) tiger populations, while the Caspian tiger is extinct in the wild. The South China tiger is believed to be functionally extinct. (Source:https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/tiger).

I have tried to name the tigers shown in the images by matching their facial striped pattern of the tigers presented in https://tigercanyon.com/our-tigers/. Apologies to our Tiger Canyon guides, Adi Stander and Daniella Kueck, if I have got the names wrong.

Father Kumba and daughter Ziyanda. I wanted to show the relative size of a fully grown adult male tiger – massive. The adult male tiger is much larger than a fully grown male lion. Tigers are the largest felines in the world and can reach up to 12.5 feet in length (including the tail) and up to 650 pounds. By contrast, lions tend to weigh between 330 and 550 kilos and measure between 6.5 and 11 feet. Interestingly, lions have longer tails than tigers.

The Bengal Tiger is the most common subspecies of tiger, constituting approximately 80% of the entire tiger population, and is found in India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Nepal. The tiger, Panthera tigris, is listed as ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The largest of all cats, the tiger once occurred throughout central, eastern and southern Asia. In the past 100 years, the tiger has lost more than 93% of its historic range and now only survives in scattered populations in 13 countries, from India to Southeast Asia, and in Sumatra, China and the Russian Far East. (Source: https://www.iucn.org/news/species/).

The next image is of young tigress, Ziyanda, walking through the long grass in the one of the large enclosures in the late afternoon. There are several enclosures which are in some cases over 1000 hectares and designed to separate groups of tigers and the cheetahs from the tigers.

According to Tiger Canyon, the number of resident tigers varies with time and expanded to 26 at one point and reduced to a low of 10 at another point. The size of this private game reserve will have to be expanded if its tiger population is to be increased sustainably.

Early in the morning, we found the young male Indra and his sister Ziyanda in the main enclosure. Tiger Canyon Game Reserve comprises 6 100ha of prime Karoo landscape divided into separate territories for the wild tigers and cheetahs to thrive in and survive. The main enclosures are at least 1 000 hectares and stocked with herbivores ranging from zebra, and wildebeest to impala, springbok, blesbok and warthog.

Oria, an adult female tigress backlit in a rocky outcrop. She was on her own and appeared to be deliberately separating herself from her adolescent youngsters.

Oria walking across a rock outcrop in the early morning. She was watching her two youngsters lying in the long grass about a hundred metres away.

Oria, a full grown tigress. She was in her prime and looked to be in superb condition and thriving in the grasslands and rock outcrops of the Karoo.

Indra, a young male tiger watching his sister walking towards him through the long grass. The light changes dramatically in the Karoo depending on the time of day offering many photographic opportunities. Tigers generally gain independence at around two years of age and attain sexual maturity at age three or four for females and four or five years for males.

Kumba is a full grown male tiger. When he was not patrolling the fence line protecting his territory from the males in the adjacent enclosure he was patrolling his enclosure. I was struck by how big he was the first time I saw him.

Adolescent male Indra, drinking from Shellduck dam in the late afternoon. He was watching his sister approaching.

Adolescent cubs, Ziyanda and Indra, drinking from Shellduck dam in the late afternoon.

Tigers love water and are inquisitive so any movement in the water attracted Indra’s attention.

After drinking at Shellduck dam, Indra walked off to climb on a small rock outcrop to gain a vantage point from which to lookout over the grassland and keep an eye on us.

It is surprising how well camouflaged the tigers were in the Karoo’s long grass. This young male tiger was hiding in the “middelmannetjie”, the grass ridge in the middle of the vehicle track. He was waiting to ambush his approaching sister.

A young male tiger looking south east across one of the large enclosures in the late afternoon. These tigers roam entirely wild in these large enclosures, hunting, mating and fighting.

The elderly tigress, TiBo, lying on an outcrop of large rocks early in the morning. TiBo was in her own enclosure for her own protection.

TiBo could watch all the activity outside her enclosure from a high outlook point. White tigers carry a regressive gene which yield a white pelage and fawn to pale blue eyes.

The tiger (Panthera tigris) is most recognised for its dark stripes against an orange background. Less well known are three other pelage color variants: white, golden and stripeless snow white. The white tiger is a polymorphism that was first seen among wild Bengal tigers (P. t. tigris) in India, with white fur and sepia brown stripes. The golden tiger, also first sighted in the jungle in India, has a blonde color tone with pale golden fur and red-brown rather than black stripes. The snow white tiger is almost completely white, with faint to nearly nonexistent narrow stripes on the trunk and diluted sepia brown rings on the tail. (Source: https://www.nature.com/articles/cr201732)

Lions and tigers are two different species. They look different, they have different lifestyles, they vocalize differently, and they generally live on different continents. Yet when they are brought together artificially, they can interbreed. Such hybrids are called tigons and ligers. The offspring of a male lion and a female tiger is called a liger. The offspring of a male tiger and a female lion is a tigon. Tigons and ligers generally are sterile and short-lived — an evolutionary dead end. 

“At first encounter, the Karoo may seem arid, desolate and unforgiving. But to those who know it, it is a land of secret beauty and infinite variety” ~ Eve Palmer

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

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