John Varty (JV) is a South African conservationist and filmmaker who specializes in Big Cats. He was born in Johannesburg on 27th November 1950. JV has three children, Daughter Savannah and twin boys, Sean and Tao.
JV established Tiger Canyons near the town of Philippolis on the Van der Kloof Lake in the Karoo of South Africa as an experiment to create a free-ranging, self-sustaining tiger population outside Asia. From this population, third and fourth generations of tigers can be returned to Asia into parks that meet a set of criteria which give the tigers a chance of surviving in Asia. He successfully introduced a lion cub into a tiger litter to test if a tigress would adopt a cub which is not their own. This way genetic diversity can be increased in populations of wild tigers where inbreeding is occurring.
JV and his brother Dave started what is now the Famous Londolozi Game Reserve of which Nelson Mandela said: “During my long walk to freedom, I had the rare privilege to visit Londolozi. There I saw people of all races living in harmony amidst the beauty that mother nature offers. There I saw a living lion in the wild. Londolozi represents a model of the dream I cherish for the future of nature preservation in our country”.
Proposal for TV Series written by Phil Fairclough.
THE TIGER MAN’S JOURNEY
Our series will not only follow the amazing stories of the tigers, but the extraordinary life, personality and the dramatic story of John Varty, aka The Tiger Man! His story, is a story of an obsessive journey into the heart of darkness and maybe, just maybe, out the other side.
JV is a mythic figure. In classical terms his unwavering (and to some people unwise) pursuit of a noble cause can be likened to Don Quixote. But he is not merely fuelled by romantic dreams …JV is gritty, mono-maniacal and hard-nosed, like Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab, with perhaps the far sightedness of a Charles Darwin.
In modern TV terms, JV is like a grizzled Bear Grylls, but even more at home in the wild, with the some of the obsessive idealism of a Timothy Treadwell. He has the, hard driving, bare-knuckled approach of a Paul Watson and the buccaneering and commercial attitude to nature conservation of a Ted Turner (with whom he is friendly). JV has an affinity for animals, big cats in particular, like no-one else.
For all his quixotic qualities, Varty is much more than just a dreamer. He is a man of action. While others talk, he acts – on behalf of tigers and big cats in general.
For most of his life JV has been wild about big cats. Along with his brother Dave, he turned his grandfather’s hunting camp, on the edge of South Africa’s Kruger Park, into the World’s best place to view leopards. It is now the famous Londolozi game reserve.
For many years JV was practically nocturnal. He followed leopards, night after night, to understand their behavior and to establish a bond with them. His knowledge and fearlessness enabled him to get amazing footage of these highly elusive cats – and also helped to establish the reputation and fortune of Londolozi.
But it is the plight of tigers that took over JV’s life, turning him from globetrotting filmmaker, khaki-clad-playboy and one of Africa’s most glamorous “wild men”, to an impoverished conservationist on a desperate personal mission.
Varty is hell bent on demonstrating a way to keep tigers from going extinct in the wild, even if he has to give the shirt off his back to do it. And when you meet him it looks as though he might already have given up his shirt for the cause. His appearance is more like that of a down-on-his-luck war veteran, than the co-owner of one of the most famous high-end game lodges in the world. He is the ragged trousered conservationist!
JV cares nothing for his personal, attire, or his physical comfort. His house is in a state of complete disrepair – in fact he’s probably happier in a tent. He jokes that the home he “maintains” at Londolozi is a “5 star” lodge because you can clearly see the night sky, shining through holes in the roof.
He has sunk practically everything he has into the Tiger Canyons project, which to some people is a, scientifically invalid, wild goose chase. So far it has cost him dearly, in far more than just financial ways.
He was criticized by conservationists, who questioned the value of what he was doing and the project bogged down in a protracted and crippling legal battle, with an erstwhile partner.
But he hung on and continued to work with his two original tigers; gradually building up to the 13 cats he has now.
While he’s been working through the issues JV has doggedly continued with his maverick experiment, taking solace in the company of tigers and the unwavering belief that he is doing the right thing.
Meanwhile, things have gradually changed and the world has caught up a bit with John Varty’s wild thinking and his “just-do-it” approach
The recent news that all the tigers have disappeared from Panna, one of India’s leading reserves, when 2 years ago there was a healthy population of 24, has somewhat vindicated Varty’s big idea. Maybe he was not so crazy after all.
Now JV’s ideas are getting more traction in South Africa and he is expanding his borders. He is persuading farmers on the marginal sheep farms around Tiger Canyons to turn over the damaged pasture to natural game -and tigers. He is also starting to open up some satellite reserves and partnering with other private African collections that have tigers and persuading them to join his cause.
Still it’s by no means plain sailing…and this is partly due to Varty’s maverick character and shoot from the hip MO. He does things --- and things happen to him --- that completely beggar belief.
Recently, angered by one of his tigers that kept biting and puncturing the tires of his jeep, JV fired a warning shot from the Smith and Wesson .44 revolver that he always carries for protection. Though he shot into the ground, the bullet ricocheted off a rock and hit the tigress, a new mother, in the foot.
This whole incident is a perfect metaphor for Varty’s maverick approach to conservation and life in general.
In classic JV fashion he blogged his “mea culpa” all over the internet – under the title “A Shot In Anger”, opening himself up to the obvious criticism that he had not only shot the tiger in the foot, but himself and the whole project as well, just as it was getting traction.
Fortunately the tigress, Shadow, only suffered a slight injury and she’ll make a full recovery, but the incident confirms the idea of JV as a man who lives pretty close to the edge. And his rationale for publicizing this? JV says:”Everyone should know that I make mistakes and I will not try to hide them. We learn from our mistakes”
He’s refreshingly frank and unflinchingly straight, which bodes well for a compelling series, full of coruscating honesty and self-criticism.
Along with the downs are some ups. JV has been able to bring his family back together and introduce his 9-year-old twin sons Sean and Tao to the tigers.
The boys are a part of the story. They accompany JV in many of his interactions and they’re are literally hands on with the tigers.
We watch JV pass on to his sons, some of the skills and techniques that he learned as a boy at the knee of African trackers and poachers.
But instead of teaching his sons how to kill a leopard or lion, as he himself did as a boy, JV is instilling in his own kids a different passion for nature and the skills to help them take care of it in the future.
Tiger Canyons is the culmination of JV’s lifelong obsession … big cats. It’s an amazing opportunity to join what promises to be the dramatic physical and emotional journey, of a man possessed – a man making a huge gamble to help save a species – and the stakes are his own life.
Where will it end? No one can predict. While JV’s approach is gaining credence, his risk taking and outspoken approach may still result in a dramatic and perhaps sudden downfall.
No one predicts a Treadwell like end for JV, but it’s not for nothing that he carries a revolver whenever he works close to the tigers. And the more cats he breeds, the harder it is for him to know each tiger personally and establish the rapport that enables him to be safe with them. He freely admits that some of the tigers would readily kill him. But that is the kind of tiger he wants…wild and ready to hunt for itself
JV is “living proof” of his ability to read animals, though he’s had plenty of close shaves and near death experiences, including a dramatic survival story after a helicopter crash deep in the African wilderness. But without doubt he is a survivor, as he has proved by keeping Tiger Canyons going and now growing.
Varty’s a big man, with a big idea, a big heart and sometimes a big mouth, who’s making it up as he goes along. We can guarantee that there’ll be plenty more drama and guilt- ridden “mea culpas” as he struggles to do what he thinks is right.
JV might be tilting at windmills, but you get the feeling that, while he is still tilting, there’s a chance, just a chance, that this maverick experiment might pay off – and tigers and humanity will be the beneficiaries.