John Varty The Tiger Man of Africa
The very notion of breeding ligers in Africa for conservation is only slightly more ridiculous than breeding tigers in Africa. No legitimate scientist or conservationist would condone anything that John Varty is doing with his inbred population of tigers.
Quotes from real experts:
Gus Mills, head of South Africa’s Endangered Wildlife Trust Carnivore Conservation Group:
“The big concern I have over the project … is they are planning to release into the wild a species that is exotic, that doesn’t occur in that ecosystem. And I think as a basic principle in conservation, we should only conserve animals that are indigenous to the area. … “From a principle basis it is just wrong to set aside a large area and conserve it with an exotic species. Why don’t you also then bring in kangaroos and some bears and you could have a real nice mix that … some people might think is attractive? But certainly from a conservation point of view it doesn’t have any value. Because conservation is really about conserving animals in their natural ecosystem.
John Seidensticker, chairman of the Save The Tiger Fund Council, and senior scientist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.:
“I’ve heard many justifications with this project … (but) the conservation community is pretty much opposed to this. It’s diverting funds that could be used otherwise. “Our definition of conservation is securing a place for wild tigers where they live, not a place in Texas or South Africa. There are a lot of people who spent their lives, sometimes at great risk of themselves, to work on (tiger conservation). It is going to be a story, this whole thing, about how to not do conservation.”
Carole Baskin, Founder and CEO of Big Cat Rescue the world’s largest accredited sanctuary dedicated entirely to exotic cats:
“The very first show called The Tiger Man of Africa has him boasting about the birth of a white cub, which is only produced through severe inbreeding. To introduce inbred and cross bred tigers into a non native habitat only does harm. The problem that tigers face in the wild has nothing to do with their ability to breed. They breed like rabbits. The problem is habitat.
The lion is currently a candidate for the endangered species list as well and again, it isn’t because they aren’t good at reproduction. It is because there is no where that they can be lions without the constant threat of poachers. Much of the lion and tiger killing that goes on in the wild is because the animal has been blamed for killing livestock. Using hand reared cats for his rewilding experiment just makes it even more likely that the cats will get into trouble if they escape his property. That just endangers the cats he has brought there and any native cats in the area. Only Dave Salmoni does more harm to big cats by teaching them to walk among humans.”
While this is amazing footage of the birth of a tiger cub, it is sad to know that neither this cub, nor her parents will ever live free.
About John Varty
John Varty (JV) is a controversial South African filmmaker. 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 supposed create a free-ranging, self-sustaining hybrid tiger population outside Asia. However experts feel that this is a money making venture by Varty in an attempt to earn money from the tourism industry. This was documented in a film called “Living with Tigers”.
The Tiger Canyons Project
However there are controversies to his proposed conservation strategy. One criticism about the project is with the chosen cubs. Experts state that the four tigers (Ron, Julie, Seatao and Shadow) involved in the re-wilding project are not purebred Bengal tigers, and should therefore not be used for breeding. The four tigers are not recorded in the Bengal tiger Studbook and should not be deemed as purebred Bengal tigers. Many tigers in the world’s zoos are genetically impure, a situation which also applies to these four.
The 1997 International Tiger Studbook lists the current global captive population of Bengal tigers at 210 tigers. All of the studbook-registered captive population is maintained in Indian zoos, except for one female Bengal tiger in North America. It has been pointed out that Ron and Julie (two of the tigers) were bred in the USA and hand-raised at Bowmanville Zoo in Canada, while Seatow and Shadow are two tigers bred in South Africa.
The tigers in the Tiger Canyons Project have recently been confirmed to be crossbred Siberian/Bengal tigers. Tigers that are not genetically pure are not allowed to be released into the wild and will not be able to participate in the tiger Species Survival Plan, which aims to breed genetically pure tiger specimens and individuals. It has thus been claimed that these tigers do not have any genetic value, and that their release into the wild could result in genetic pollution, besides the extinction of purebred Tigers.
Discovery Documentary Fraud
The documentary has been described as a fraud. The tigers were apparently unable to hunt, and the film crew chased the prey up against the fence and into the path of the tigers for the sake of dramatic footage. Cory Meacham, a US-based environmental journalist mentioned that “the film has about as much to do with tiger conservation as a Disney cartoon.”
In addition, the tigers have not been released as the film suggests — and indeed still reside in a small enclosure under constant watch and with frequent human contact. The Discovery documentary contains footage that its maker, John Varty, has admitted on affidavit to be false.
There are claims that Tiger Canyons’ Tigers have no conservation value, and experts question JV’s intention of building Tiger Canyons as a ecotourism industry in South Africa. Most experts concluded that it is just a money-minded venture which allows money to be earned through the deception that the tigers there are purebred, but in fact they have no conservation value as they are of mixed ancestry. Conservationists fear that the public will be misled in this cynical fashion.
Paper Tigers: South Africa
To millions of South African viewers they became household names – controversial wildlife filmmaker, John Varty and his wife, television celebrity, Gillian van Houten. The camera portrayed them as the idyllic bush couple, working together to attempt to return orphaned animals to the wild.
The little lion cub Shingilana, Jamu the leopard … it all made for great television.
In 1999 John began his most controversial production: filming the rehabilitation into the wild of two zoo-bred Bengal tigers. The story would end with their release into a reserve in the Karoo.
[recording: telephone call]
John Varty: ‘I spend my day working on plans to make our tigers fitter, faster, better hunters so that they’re ready when they go out in the wild, they’re fully prepared and that’s what I do on a daily basis.’
But this has attracted sharp criticism. The IUCN’s Cat Specialist Group is opposed to the idea of tigers free-ranging in a South African reserve and co-existing with our indigenous wildlife. They also doubt the conservation value of breeding with these tigers, which aren’t pure Bengal.
Devi: ‘Your project has come in for a lot of criticism. There are some scientists who say your project does not have any conservation value at all.’
John: ‘Ja, but there are many very reputed scientists who say that it does have conservation value.’
But the fact of the matter is that these Bengal tigers are only here on a filming permit, which expires in November. Thousands of kilometres away in the UK, Li Quan, founder of the Save China’s Tigers charity, is on a mission to save a different tiger. In one of the most ambitious private conservation efforts ever, Li is campaigning to rescue the critically endangered South China tiger from extinction.
Li Quan: ‘This is a very, very high profile project – we’re talking of the last six Chinese tigers and we’re talking about a huge effort to give them a last chance.’
And Li left a high-flying career in the fashion world to give them that chance. She began by promoting the Maywahshun Captive Breeding and Wild-Training Centre, a project devoted to saving the South China tiger.
Li: ‘I started doing a lot of work establishing contacts with scientists in the cat field.’
But with only 60 in captivity, and less than 30 left in the wild, some of these scientists have given up on this big cat as a lost cause.
Devi: ‘People told you that you were crazy but you still went ahead.’
Li: ‘I just persisted and I believe that this is the tiger that represents the Chinese culture and has been a Chinese symbol and we just cannot let it go without a fight.’
Born and bred in Beijing, Li, like millions of other Chinese, had no experience of wildlife in the wild.
Li: ‘In fact for me, when I was growing up in China, wildlife seemed to belong to zoos and zoos seemed to be the home for wildlife, for animals.’
Her dream to see a leopard in the wild took her to Africa and eventually to the Londolozi Game Reserve. Founded by John and his brother, businessman Dave Varty, this eco-tourism venture was renowned for its leopards.
[recording: telephone call]
John Varty, filmmaker: ‘When the leopards became well-known at Londolozi and it became habituated, we were able to run at high-occupancy at Londolozi and we were able to sustain our park very successfully, and that’s why those private game parks had been so successful.’
Li: ‘What greatly impressed me in Londolozi was that you can really see a leopard. And I thought this is great. I thought, why can’t China do the same thing?’
But China didn’t have the expertise or the land to make Li’s dream of free roaming Chinese tigers, a reality. However, South Africa did. And with Dave’s background in eco-tourism and John’s experience with tigers, enlisting their help seemed the obvious way to go.
Li: ‘I was so excited. And I thought what better choice do we have? I read the book and they seemed to be the top South African conservationists.’
Stuart Bray, Investment Banker: ‘Many of the references came from the Vartys. We’d read Shannon Varty’s book and in that book they sound like superheroes. It seemed very credible. We’d certainly visited Londolozi – it’s a beautiful place, we enjoyed the experience. I was impressed that he had started and run a company and it seemed very credible.’
Li and her husband, London investment banker Stuart Bray, first met John and Dave Varty in August 2001. For Li and Stuart the Vartys’ Bengal project was an interesting experiment, but their aim was to find a way to save the South China tiger.
Stuart: ‘It’s going to be an extraordinary task to try to recreate habitat in China and we don’t have the time that it will take to do it in China from scratch. So, I began to see the pieces come together in a sensible, coherent plan.’
And the plan was to borrow cubs from Chinese zoos and rehabilitate them to the wild in South Africa. But the ultimate goal was to return these tigers’ offspring to a proposed pilot reserve in China, in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Stuart: ‘If we just build a reserve in South Africa and bring some tourists, there’s no conservation value. It only works if we build a reserve in China and restore the habitat that’s been lost and re-introduce the tigers there.’
The agreement was pretty straightforward – Stuart Bray entrusted $4-million to the Vartys to buy land, fence it and stock it with game.
Dave Varty, Eco-tourism Developer: ‘Broadly speaking, he would provide funding, we would provide intellectual capital, expertise, etc. We would assemble the land, get the model, the economics of the model going, which included lodges, included rehabilitation of tigers, etc. etc.’
So Stuart set up and guaranteed a credit facility in South Africa in the Vartys’ name. They were authorised to use this R35-million loan to set up the sanctuary. And it was up to the Vartys to rehabilitate the Chinese tigers and get them back to the reserve in China. In return they would reap the commercial benefits from filmmaking and lodges.
Stuart: ‘The original proposition with the Vartys, which never changed, was that we would try to provide them – that is, Li would try to provide them – with tigers by lobbying the Chinese government, which would be a valuable business proposition for them for their film business, for eco-tourism. In exchange for them committing to doing the hard work of building the reserve and eco-tourism in China.’
At first everything seemed to be working out well. While Li lobbied the Chinese government for support, the Vartys bought up land surrounding their farms near Philippolis in the Free State. The 30 000 hectare Tiger Moon Sanctuary would be supported by the Vartys’ commercial operation, Tiger Moon Ventures.
Dave: ‘I think we’ve got something to offer; I really think so. Despite what the scientific world says, I really believe we’ve got something to offer, and I really believe that tiger conservation will be fundamentally shifted as a result of this project. And I dearly wish that humans didn’t get in the way and that we’d just kind of stuck to one agenda.’
But in May last year Li and Stuart began to doubt the Vartys’ agenda. They had signed an agreement which stated that after February 2002 all the interests in land bought by the Vartys would belong to Stuart. It now seemed to Li and Stuart that the Vartys were buying up land for themselves.
Stuart: ‘In an off-hand conversation with Dave’s accountant, Dave’s accountant mentioned that Dave had been buying land in his own name and I said, ‘That doesn’t sound right to me. He shouldn’t be doing that’. And he was a bit embarrassed and quickly added, ‘Oh, but he did with his own offshore money’. I said, ‘But he shouldn’t be doing that. He’s supposed to be buying this as my agent. He can’t be bidding against me for the same land’.’
The Vartys originally owned around 2 300 hectares. They now claim to own significantly more.
Dave: ‘I think that it’s quite important to say that we own 25% of the park and we have an option to acquire up to 60% of the park. From a legal point of view that’s what’s under dispute.’
But while the issue of land came under dispute, Stuart was becoming increasingly concerned over how his funds were being used.
The doubt set in in July last year when the Vartys admitted to borrowing a small portion of Stuart’s money. For Stuart and Li, this was the thin edge of the wedge.
Li: ‘We were a little bit shocked and we just said, ‘This is not to be permitted because we had agreed that no money should be spent on your money-making ventures. You have to rectify this.’
Devi: ‘Did he tell you how much money he had spent on Tiger Moon Ventures?’
Li: ‘No, no. He said he borrowed a small amount of money.’
In a forensic audit instructed by Stuart, this small amount of money eventually added up to more than R5-million. A lengthy list of transactions included:
* R4,7-million to pay off Londolozi Productions’ debt;
* R49 000 a month to cover Londolozi Productions’ head office expenses;
* Over R300 000 to pay unauthorised salaries.
Stuart: ‘He’s gone all over the place. I have paid part of the mortgage on a house in Betty’s Bay, I bought groceries, settled the lawsuit against Londolozi Films, I made vast loans to Varty Investments, I made vast loans to Londolozi Productions. All things that were unauthorized, and it was absolutely clear from the beginning that the money was supposed to have been used for land, fencing and animals.’
Gillian van Houten and other staff, unrelated to the sanctuary, are alleged to have received salaries from Stuart’s funds. Large amounts of money are also said to have gone into the Vartys’ personal loan accounts and towards paying off their Betty’s Bay seaside property.
Stuart: ‘Clearly it was a complete disregard for the project, for my money, just for honesty in general. There was no intention of doing what we agreed.’
But this original agreement was verbal. And although the Vartys themselves drew up a written version, it was never signed. The Vartys now claim that Stuart provided the money with an ill-defined mandate on how it should be spent. And Dave is emphatic that nothing has gone missing.
Devi: ‘And they’re making the allegation that some of the money – and a forensic audit was carried out which you know about – you know, R12 000 went into a bond in Betty’s Bay, R4,7-million to clear debt of Londolozi projects, etc. I mean, is this true?’
Dave: ‘The money’s all been accounted for. We too have done a forensic audit. What’s true is that the money’s been put into developing this project. And it stands there for everyone to see. Everyone knows where the money went. We too have done a forensic audit. And there’s really no point for me to say what’s true and what not. Just let the process unfold. But we are quite comfortable that we know where all the money went, why it was applied, how it was used.’
Devi: ‘You’re saying that you know where the money is, you know what it is being used for and it’s completely legitimate.’
Dave: ‘As does their audit.’
Devi: ‘Above board, there’s no hassle?’
Devi: ‘So let’s prove the point. For example, R12 000 towards the house in Betty’s Bay, what’s the conservation angle on that?’
Dave: ‘Ja, no point in going down this road now, it’s just in too deep. I can explain to you treasury management etc. but … And if it is around the money question, it’s around what we call a treasury management issue, an allocation of funds. All the money is accounted for.’
David Leibowitz, Legal Adviser: ‘All of the money according to the Vartys’ own book of records has been accounted for and its expenditure on unauthorised and illegitimate purposes has been properly recorded. ‘
Recorded in such detail it has stunned David Leibowitz, Li and Stuart’s pro-bono legal adviser.
David: ‘The result is not an agreement over treasury management. There was no treasury management function here. Stuart gave them money to spend on land, fencing and animals – nothing more, nothing less. He did not give them money – millions of rands of it – to spend on getting their other companies out of debt. Which is what their own book of records show them to have done.’
And another transaction on their books was to pay for cheetahs.
Payment for cheetahs: R210 000
Li: ‘There was an entry to pay for cheetahs. And so, I was wondering where are the cheetahs. What happened?’
Devi: ‘So there’s no truth either in that money being used to buy the cheetahs which were used in exchange for …’
Dave: ‘The cheetahs went out. The idea is they’re on loan to our colleagues in Canada. They will breed them and they will be part of the same rehabilitation test back at Tiger Moon. And on a completely separate … three years ago … we have a similar agreement with the Canadians, that’s how we got the tigers.’
Devi: ‘So no money changed hands for that arrangement at all?’
Dave: ‘For which?’
Devi: ‘For the cheetahs.’
Dave: ‘The cheetahs? We paid for the cheetahs from De Wildt and sent them to Canada. They will then be in Canada. The breeding of those cheetahs will then come back to the sanctuary.
Devi: ‘That’s just it. Because Li says you’re using her money to pay for the cheetahs.’
Dave: ‘They were paid for out of the money for stocking the sanctuary. That’s correct.’
But their grievances with the Vartys are not just about money. Putting her reputation and the careers of several Chinese officials on the line, Li finally managed to gain the trust and co-operation of the Chinese government.
Li: ‘… basically convince them that to share a few tigers with the Varty brothers would bring so much more benefit such as building the Chinese Tiger reserve and training Chinese workers.’
The Chinese Wildlife Department began to view the project as having great significance for China’s conservation efforts. But in October last year, just weeks before the landmark agreement was due to be signed with the Chinese authorities, the Vartys pulled out.
Stuart: ‘We actually had a shouting match in Johannesburg. I accused them of lying to me – ‘This can’t be the real reason. You don’t seriously mean to say that you are not going to sign because the Chinese government can’t be trusted’.’
In their affidavit to the High Court Dave Varty claims that demands made on them by the Chinese Government were ‘… far too onerous and never contemplated at the outset of the project’.
Li: ‘They actually took us hostage because what they wanted to do was they only want the commercial benefit and they didn’t want all the hard work that would go with the commercial benefit.
Devi: ‘ … even thought they had agreed to that earlier?’
Despite this setback, the Beijing agreement went ahead in November 2002. Li and Stuart say that they had to set up a trust to hold up South Africa’s side of the bargain.
Stuart: ‘It’s hard to explain how serious it is to have signed this agreement with the Chinese. I am absolutely committed to deliver on something I don’t know how I’m going to pay for.’
The ideal model of eco-tourism funding the conservation goal now seemed to Stuart nothing but a pipe dream.
Stuart: ‘Now we have committed to a huge project because they backed away from it at the last minute. And I’m just not sure that the whole thing even works because it was all a lie.‘
And this led Stuart to withdraw virtually all the Vartys’ commercial rights in the venture. But the Vartys have now gone to court to reclaim these rights and their interests in the sanctuary. And with the dispute having reached a point of no return, the Vartys play the patriotic card.
Dave: ‘What is the agenda? Is it tigers, is it money, is it control? Because where we are coming from, sadly, the funders of this project, who are not from South Africa, who are foreign nationals, have decided to take it over.’
Devi: ‘Can this be about an ego … yours?’
Li: ‘If it was about ego, I would have happily portrayed myself as a person to save the Chinese Tigers. Both Stuart and I have stayed behind the scenes. In fact, nobody in South Africa knew who we were.’
Li and Stuart now believe that from the start the Vartys’ agenda in the South China Tiger project was primarily to make a movie.
Stuart: ‘We talked about how sexy it would be if this was a project to save the most endangered tiger in the world and that this would be a very sellable story. They explained to me that selling a film is all about selling a story. And they didn’t have an ending to their story. And they said they needed to know what the ending would be. If the ending was saving the South China tiger, then suddenly they have a very sellable story.’
Li: ‘Their interest is purely commercial and to make money.‘
[recording: telephone call]
Devi: ‘Li makes the point that she feels that you were only interested in doing the movie, and that you really weren’t interested in going back to China and from a conservation point of view, giving back to the Chinese people.’
John: ‘That’s her point of view, but the fact remains I’m heading back into Asia as we speak, looking at all aspects of tiger conservation, looking for land where we can restore the tiger on a much more sound land use system than it’s on at the moment.’
Dave: ‘Absolutely we’re in for the filmmaking. Absolutely we’re in it to making lodges, like we started out to do. In 1970 we were described as conservation mercenaries then because we were making money out of wildlife. It’s become an industry and as a result, more and more land is being put under wildlife.
But while these seemingly noble conservation goals are bandied about, the legal wrangling over who owns what has taken an ominous turn.
Just after our interview with Li Quan, the Sheriff of the Court arrived at her farmhouse and served this interdict to four of her employees, which was initiated by John Varty. In it, he claims that he fears injury to his property, his family and himself.’
John: ‘Well, they’re big guys and they’re armed and they’re using intimidation tactics. There is subtle intimidation. On Thursday or Friday, three of them were at my tiger booms and that’s not a situation that I’m comfortable with.’
John states in his affidavit that he fears that Li would not hesitate to put an end to the Bengal tiger project, even so far as to have the tigers killed. But as someone whose mission it is to save tigers, Li claims that this interdict was just another ploy to divert attention from the real issues.
Li: ‘We do think that John Varty is trying his best to disrupt the Chinese Tiger project.‘
Devi: ‘Do you think that your employees pose a threat to John Varty?’
Li: ‘No. They are here to do the work on the farm. And we have a lot of work to be done, things to be taken off and … [inaudible] to be accounted. And also, they don’t carry weapons.
Firearms, interdicts and incriminations … while the courts decide the outcome of this fiasco, the cubs are waiting in Chinese zoos for what could possibly be the last chance for the South China Tiger.
Date : 30 March 2003
Producer : Nikki Berryman, Grant Nelson
Saturday September 6, 8:23 am ET
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Sept. 6 /PRNewswire/ — This statement is being issued by The Chinese Tigers South African Trust, a charitable tiger conservation trust:
Risking its reputation as a source of credible science programming, The Discovery Channel still plans to air its scheduled broadcast of Living With Tigers, a documentary film dogged throughout its production by accusations of fraud both from investors who claim they’ve been cheated by the filmmakers.
“The film is a fraud,” declares Stuart Bray, an American-born investor whose money was used to make the film. “And Discovery knows it’s a fraud.”
Bray and his wife, Li Quan, are the founders of Save China’s Tigers, the UK-based charity that made international headlines last week for bringing two highly endangered Chinese tigers – of which there are fewer than 100 remaining worldwide – to South Africa for wildness training in preparation for reintroduction into a reserve in China to coincide with the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Bray originally partnered with South African filmmakers Jon and Dave Varty in a combined effort on behalf of the Chinese tiger project, but the relationship ended last year when Bray and Quan discovered the Vartys had used Bray’s money to make a film that has nothing to do with Chinese tigers — the film Discovery is set to air.
“They hijacked the project while my wife and I were in London and Beijing working on the charity,” says Bray.
While finances led Bray to file suit directly against the Varty brothers, his bigger concern is the damage that will be done to tiger conservation if the film airs.
“The Vartys claim their film is about tiger conservation, but it’s not,” Bray says, adding that criminal charges will also be filed against the Vartys.
“It’s a fraud scientifically as well as legally, and unless the people who watch it are alerted to that fact I worry they might believe what they see.”
According to Bray, the Vartys used his money to acquire two “trash tigers” of an unendangered breed and no value to conservation, then proceeded to make a film Bray never approved. “And we’ve got them dead-to-rights contractually,” Bray says. “They don’t hold the rights to film those animals on that land.”
Those rights will form the basis of a $50-million lawsuit Bray says his lawyers will file against Discovery Communications Incorporated if the film is aired.
“We have spent six months pleading with Discovery to understand this,” Bray says. “But they’re deaf. They won’t talk to us anymore. They’ve been completely seduced by the Vartys and their footage.”
Beyond the legal wrangling, legitimate conservationists worldwide have expressed concern over the Varty brothers’ cinematic attraction to tigers.
“Manipulating animal behavior for the sake of documentary film production is not ethical”, says award-winning South African wildlife film maker Phil Hattingh, “this brings into question the film techniques employed in many of Jon Varty’s documentary film productions.”
Bray offers an example. “Li and I watched with our own eyes as the Vartys’ film crew chased the prey up against the fence and into the path of the tigers just for the sake of dramatic footage. The prey had no chance. It was a canned hunt.”
Environmentalists from around the world are equally concerned about the Discovery film. “From what I’ve learned,” says Cory Meacham, a US-based environmental journalist who covers tiger conservation and who was recently deposed in connection with the lawsuit Bray has filed against the Vartys, “the tigers in the film are presented as part of a legitimate tiger-conservation project but they’re from a breed that’s not endangered. If in fact that’s the case, then the film has about as much to do with tiger conservation as a Disney cartoon.”
Meacham, whom Bray attempted to recruit last year in an effort to oust the Vartys, expressed surprise when informed that Discovery still plans to proceed with the film. “These guys might have made a pretty movie with gorgeous cats,” Meacham says of the Vartys, “but Discovery and its viewers need to be careful not to get that confused with tiger conservation.”
What can you do?
While the Vartys and Discovery have pandered to the public’s desire to believe that the conservation issues of habitat loss can be fixed through breeding cubs, bottle raising them and interacting with big cats, the lion has slipped closer to the brink of extinction in Africa. You can help by asking that the lion be added to the endangered species list, before it is too late here: