Early on the morning of the 1st of November 2009, at Tiger
Canyons in South Africa, I had one of the most incredible
experiences of my life. I was able to enter the den of Tigress
Julie and film and photograph five tiny new born cubs, one of
which is white.
Incredibly, with me in the den was wildlife photographer Daryl
Balfour and cameraman James Boon.
The story starts 4 days earlier when Daryl, James and I, had
begun following Julie in the hope that we could capture the
actual birth on film.
Daryl Balfour and John Varty
I had expected Julie to give birth on the 104th day after
mating, but the gestation was longer than before and
she eventually gave birth on the 107th day.
Julie is a unique tigress in that I have been with her for 10
years. I regularly hunt with her on foot and during her first
litter I had sat many days with her in the den, but always on my
Any person with me is tolerated, even greeted by Julie. However
to allow complete strangers into her den, just after birth, was
a big ask.
In a leap of faith, Daryl, James and I entered the den. At first
glance, there appeared to be 4 cubs. The white cub was fighting
for a teat and appeared to be holding its own in the battle for
milk. Julie was very calm and pleased to see me and proud of her
As I filmed, I noticed a fifth cub pop out from under Julie's
body. The litter was five, I was elated.
Although it will be extremely difficult for Julie to raise all
five cubs (Julie has only 4 teats), I will not interfere. Nature
will take its course and if two or three cubs perish on the
way, so be it.
Talking in whispers, the photographers moved around Julie and
the cubs, setting up tripods and other paraphernalia. Julie
showed no sign of aggression at all. Understandably she was
Seatao, the father of the cubs, had been put in a holding boma
so we could move into the den in safety. Two, three years old
male tigers, Shy Boy and Tiger Boy, were in the area, but
thankfully they remained in their territories to the south.
For a hour we filmed and photographed as the five cubs battled
for a share of the milk. One cub hissed and spat at the camera
when a lens was put too close to its face.
Julie rolled onto her back to allow the cubs easy access to the
teats. In the confines of the den, with so many cubs, it is
entirely possible that she rolls or sits on a cub and squashes
it to death. I have seen it with lion, leopard and tiger.
As far as Daryl, James and I were concerned, we were outsiders,
extremely privileged to be able to observe the miracle of life
and the first few hours of 5 newly born tiger cubs. We sat in
awe of how Tigress Julie managed the situation.
The journey leading up to this incredible birth, is almost more
fascinating than the birth itself.
On the 10th of January, Julie gave birth to 3 cubs, a normal
coloured male, a normal coloured female and a white female.
Within an hour of giving birth, she had abandoned the litter
without ever suckling them.
The reason she abandoned the cubs are complex. Firstly she was
still hunting for the first litter and I'm sure felt responsible
I had moved her into an area where there are excellent den
sites. This took her out of her territory and close to a rival
female Shadow, who was also giving birth at the same time (newsletter
no 19). This was undoubtedly a mistake on my part.
On the 18th of July she had come into estrus and over a period
of three days, she has mated more than 150 times with the male Saetao.
I had photographed one of the matings on foot and had to retreat
swiftly to the jeep when Saetao became aggressive (see YouTube)
I calculated the date of birth to be the 30th of October 2009,
which was 104 days after mating.
I presumed the birth would be in the mid morning like Tigress
Shadow and the same as her abandoned litter.
Daryl, James and I followed her from early in the morning of the
30th to sunset.
The 30th and 31st of October came and went, she was two days
past her deadline. Could it be a large litter I wondered, her
belly was huge to say the least.
This is certainly the toughest time for a tigress. Heavily
pregnant and hungry, she must hunt, find and catch prey to feed
herself and the cubs inside her.
It is at times likes these that I wish we humans were move
evolved, that we could talk to other species and in my case
However Julie has her own way of communicating . She spent some
considerable time moving a large rock to catch a frog in
a stream. All sorts of theories were put forward. Was she eating
the frog to delay the birth, was it self medication?
I believe she was simply saying "I'm hungry, I need food, I need
energy if I am to produce these cubs". I took the hint and gave
her a large piece of meat.
On the morning of the 1st of November, it all came together,
Julie set off into some rocky outcrops with thick clumps of
bush, ideal for den sites. I followed her on foot, with James
and Daryl following in the jeep. Many caves and thickets were
meticulously checked out. She decided she liked a dense thicket
and began excavating some leaves out of the den. She lay down,
it was mid morning, conditions were perfect.
Daryl and James moved into good positions in the den and we
waited while Julie slept. I was convinced that when she awoke,
she would go into labour. When she awoke, she inexplicitly stood
up and left the den site never to return.
That afternoon a huge electrical Karoo storm rolled in and
darkness fell across Tiger Canyons. Daryl, James and I were
forced to give up our quest to capture the birth on film.
Surely she would not give birth in the dark on a cold raining
During the night Julie and Mother Nature combined to
bring 5 healthy cubs into the world, blowing
away my theory that cubs would be born in the mid morning when
it is warm and rival predators are least active.
On the morning of the 2nd of November, there they were, dry,
healthy and suckling. Julie had done it her way, in her own time,
away from the prying eyes of the camera. More importantly, she
had suckled her cubs and given them the vital colostrum in the
first feed. She had bonded with her cubs and they with her.
If she raises the white cub, it will be the only free ranging
wild white tiger in the world.
Be assured, I will follow Julie and her cubs daily and I will
keep you informed every step of the way.
Tread Lightly of the Earth