REVIEWS: Living With Tigers
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2003:
Living With Tigers
Discovery Channel Video (www.discovery.com), 2003.
Two hours. $19.95.
Among the many “sanctuary” projects involving tigers that
appear to have more entertainment and fundraising value than either
humane or conservation merit, possibly the most bizarre is the
effort of South African wildlife film makers John and Dave Varty to
“save” tigers by introducing captive-born specimens to the “wild” at
their game ranch.
The idea, supposedly, is to prepare the tigers and their
descendants to return to freedom in China, on the eve of the 2008
Olympic Games, if China can protect enough habitat and prey for the
tigers to survive.
The Varty brothers call their 18-square-mile ranch the Tiger
Moon Wildlife Sanctuary, but South Africa–like the U.S.–does not
legally recognize sanctuaries as entities with a purpose distinct
from keeping wildlife for hunting, meat, or exhibition. Unlike the
U.S., South Africa even prohibits keeping some native species except
for commercial use. The Kalahari Wildlife Center, Enkosini Wildlife
Sanctuary, SealAlert, and at least three nonhuman primate rescue
facilities have accordingly fought for years in court for the right
to keep caracals, jackals, lions, fur seals, vervets, and
baboons whose injuries or conditioned reliance upon human feeding
preclude returning them to the wild.
In 2000 the Vartys imported two young tigers and trainer Dave
Salmoni from the Bowmanville Zoo in Ontario.
Opened in 1919, the Bowmanville Zoo has received critical reviews
from Zoocheck Canada since 1986, in part because it allows
tigers–common in captivity–to breed.
The Vartys in early 2001 obtained $4 million in funding from
British philanthropists Li Quan and Stewart Bray, who founded an
organization called Save The Tigers. Quan and Bray “agreed to pay
China $100,000 a year until 2007,” according to David Wilson of the
South China Morning Post, in exchange for a “supply of cubs from
But the relationship among the Vartys, Quan, and Bray
fractured before the end of 2002. Quan and Bray accused the brothers
of fraud. In April 2003 the Vartys won a restraining order from the
Johannesburg High Court against Quan, Bray, and four “strongmen”
whom Quan and Bray allegedly hired to try to take control of the
project back from the Vartys.
The Varty brothers continue to work with the Bowmanville Zoo
tigers. Threatening to sue the brothers, Quan and Bray meanwhile
started their own 500-acre tiger-rehab-in-South Africa project. On
September 1, 2003, they received two tigers from the Shanghai Zoo.
Among the evident conceptual flaws in either version of the
scheme are that tigers are not native to South Africa and not adapted
to the dry South African climate; South Africa lacks adequate wild
prey for native feline predators such as the lion, leopard,
cheetah, and caracal, who need no added food competition; and
tigers released in China would not occupy habitat even remotely
resembling the veldt.
Living With Tigers, produced by the Vartys, demonstrates
many reasons for skepticism about the Tiger Moon project, but
presents each dubious aspect with a gush of enthusiasm which
evidently kept the Discovery Channel executives from asking all the
questions they should have.
Salmoni and Dave Varty are repeatedly shown cuddling and
playing with the tigers in a manner opposite to standard wildlife
rehabilitation technique, in which contact with humans is minimized
and discouraged. They tow dead antelopes behind a truck for the
tigers to pounce, conditioning the tigers to appear at the sound of
vehicles–and perhaps, to stalk tourist jeeps. They keep the
brother and sister tiger together until the female comes into her
first heat. They teach the tigers to hunt as a pack, which no
tigers do in the wild.
They repeatedly take meat from the tigers to “show them who
is boss,” feeding them later in camp. This teaches the tigers to
associate human habitation with food.
Eventually the Vartys proclaim success in teaching the tigers
to hunt, after the tigers kill seven springbok who have been
released almost into their mouths. No wild tiger described by Jim
Corbett, Billy Arjan Singh, Valmik Thapar, or even Rudyard Kipling
ever did such a thing: wild tigers hunt to eat, not for sport, and
do not risk goring or stomping to kill horned and hooved prey in
excess. Indeed, no wild predator kills to excess, since this would
lead to starvation.
The filming itself also raises questions. At one point a map
of Tiger Moon shows that the Orange River bisects it. Later, the
tigers “escape” across the river to attack cattle said to belong to a
neighbor. But the tigers are shown in frontal view as they charge
out of the river, up an embankment toward the cattle. Only if the
camera was already between the cattle and the river could that shot
have been obtained. If it was taken at another time, it is not so
It is easy to see possible reasons why Quan and Bray withdrew
from the partnership. The likelihood of the Bowmanville Zoo tigers
ever surviving anywhere in a genuinely wild and self-sufficient state
appears to be slim, though the illusion that they are living as
“wild tigers” on the ranch may become a major magnet for photo safari
Why Quan and Bray are continuing their parallel project is
harder to envision–because even if they avoid the mistakes shown in
LivingWith Tigers, there still seems to be little reason to
A competitor project is underway within China. The official
Xinhua News Agency announced on September 24 that the Northeast China
Tiger Park in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, had released 30
two-year-old Siberian tiger cubs into a 40-square-kilometre “natural
habitat” to “beef up their ferocity.” This too is a highly
artificial situation, but at least these tigers are in a semblance
of their native habitat.