Lions & tigers bred for heads & bones
PHILIPPOLIS, Karoo, South Africa––A captive cheetah on March 18, 2017 fatally mauled the three-year-old son of Jacob Pieterse, an employee at tiger breeder and filmmaker John Varty’s Tiger Canyon wildlife farm and tourist attraction.
Police spokesperson Motantsi Makhele told media that the victim died while being flown to a hospital in Bloemfontein.
“Large amount of booze”
Posted Varty to Facebook, “On the Friday night [preceding the attack] a large amount of booze was smuggled into the compound. The gate that blocks the cheetah from entering the compound was carelessly left open. On the Saturday morning [of the attack] the cheetah entered the compound through the open gate. The victim should not have been there; he lives in another compound. The victim’s mother did not pay attention. She allowed the three-year-old boy to play outside the house unattended.”
The attack, Varty said, caused “extensive injury to [the victim’s] neck and head. Although the doctor in Philippolis told me there was little chance of success, I hired a helicopter and flew the boy to Mediclinic in Bloemfontein. The boy was alive but brain dead on arrival.
“No action will be taken”
“No action will be taken against the cheetah,” Varty pledged. “A 2.4 meter electrified fence will be constructed around the compound. All women and children have been removed. My condolences go to Jacob and Sophie Pieterse, the parents of the child.” Local police opened a routine inquest into the death, but no one was arrested, and there were no indications that anyone would be.
Even wild cheetahs rarely harm humans, tending to be more friendly and curious than wary, but like any large predator, they can be dangerous. Visitors were mauled in 2009 and 2012 at the Kragga Kamma Game Park near Nelson Mandela Bay, Botswanian president Ian Khama received two stitches after a military mascot cheetah gave him an overly excited greeting in 2013, and two captive cheetahs injured a female warrant officer who tried to photograph them at the Makhado Air Force Base in South Africa in 2015.
A three-year-old child would be within the normal size range of cheetah prey.
“Frequently attracts controversy”
The involvement of John Varty, however, ensured that the death will attract second looks, no matter how accidental.
Observed Africa Geographic, “Varty frequently attracts controversy – including a protracted and crippling legal battle with former partners in Tiger Canyons farm and being hospitalized with two broken ribs, lacerations and puncture wounds after one of his tigers attacked him. He also accidentally shot one of his tigers, a new mother, in the foot. The tiger subsequently recovered.”
Varty, according to Agence France Presse, landed in intensive care at the Bloemfontein Medi Clinic in March 2012, “after being attacked while filming on his Tiger Canyons farm in the central Free State.
“Tigers not native to South Africa”
“Tigers are not native to South Africa,” Agence France Presse acknowledged, though it is “home to lions, leopards and cheetahs, but Varty set up the experimental reserve near the small town of Philippolis with the aim of eventually returning cats to Asia to boost their dwindling numbers. He founded the luxury Londolozi Game Reserve in the private Sabi Sands Game Reserve, which shares an unfenced border with the country’s world-famous Kruger National Park. He has made several documentaries and co-wrote, produced and starred as himself in the 1992 film Running Wild, starring Brooke Shields and Martin Sheen.”
A Wikipedia biography recounts that “As a child, John Varty learned about hunting on the family game farm near Kruger National Park. After his father Charles died,” the Wikipedia account continues, “John and his brother Dave terminated the hunting activities and converted it into a game reserve in 1973. In 2000, John Varty started a Bengal tiger re-wilding project near Philippolis in the Free State.”
The gist of that was that the Varty brothers imported two tigers of almost breeding age and trainer Dave Salmoni from the Bowmanville Zoo in Ontario, Canada.
Opened in 1919, the Bowmanville Zoo had received critical reviews from Zoocheck Canada since 1986, in part because it allowed tigers––common in captivity––to breed.
Longtime Bowmansville Zoo director Michael Hackenberger resigned in early 2016 after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released a video appearing to show him abusing a Siberian tiger during a training routine.
Reportedly suffering a 65% drop in paid admissions during the remainder of 2016, the Bowmanville zoo closed permanently in October 2016. It had been the oldest privately owned zoo in North America.
The Vartys in early 2001 obtained $4 million in funding from British philanthropist Li Quan and her husband, investment banker Stewart Bray, who had founded an organization called Save The Tigers. The Varty tiger ranch came to be called Tiger Moon.
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 Chinese zoos” to be raised at the Varty facility.
But the relationship among the Vartys, Quan, and Bray fractured before the end of 2002. Quan and Bray accused the Varty brothers of fraud.
Bray, Wikipedia summarizes, “claimed that he and Quan, watched a film crew [chase] prey up against a fence and into the path of the tigers just for the sake of dramatic footage. Quan and Bray also accused [the Varty brothers] of financial mismanagement after a legal audit uncovered that he had borrowed 5.7 million rand [South African currency] for extraneous and personal expenses.”
Quan and Bray in September 2003 “established the Save China’s Tigers Laohu Valley Reserve, also near Philippolis,” Wikipedia recounts. The Quan/Bray breeding program began with two tigers from the Shanghai Zoo.
A separate Wikipedia entry for the Save China’s Tigers Laohu Valley Reserve asserts that the Varty brothers had in July 2002 “admitted to borrowing a small portion of Bray’s money.”
The Varty brothers, however, in April 2003 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 Tiger Moon project back from the Vartys.
Over the next half dozen years both South African tiger breeding projects reaped publicity for purported efforts to prepare the tigers for release in Chinese wildlife habitat on the eve of the 2008 Olympic Games.
Living With Tigers
The Varty brothers’ progress was documented in a 2003 Discovery Channel production called Living with Tigers. The former Bowmanville Zoo trainer Salmoni and Dave Varty were 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 towed 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 kept a brother and sister tiger together until the female entered her first heat. They taught the tigers to hunt as a pack, which no tigers do in the wild.
They repeatedly took meat from the tigers to “show them who is boss,” feeding them later in camp. This taught the tigers to associate human habitation with food.
Eventually the Varty brothers proclaimed success in teaching the tigers to hunt, after the tigers killed seven springbok who had been released almost into their mouths.
Filming raised questions
The filming itself also raised questions. At one point a map of Tiger Moon showed that the Orange River bisects it. Later, the tigers “escaped” across the river to attack cattle said to belong to a neighbor. But the tigers were shown in frontal view as they charged 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 was not so identified.
Despite the many dubious aspects of Living With Tigers, National Geographic in 2011 broadcast Tiger Man of Africa, a second documentary ballyhooing the Varty tiger breeding project at Tiger Canyon, the successor site to Tiger Moon.
Tiger farming in China
Both South African tiger breeding projects bear an uncomfortable similarity to the image cultivated since 1986 by the Northeast China Tiger Park in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China, also known as the Harbin Siberian Tiger Park.
Purportedly also breeding tigers for eventual return to the wild, the facility as of January 2016 housed more than 500 tigers, and was reputedly the second largest of about 200 tiger farms in China, which have among them between 5,000 and 6,000 tigers, far more than the fewer than 4,000 tigers of all species combined who remain in the wild.
Mostly the tigers appear to be raised for their bones, which are soaked in rice wine to produce a traditional all-purpose tonic. Meanwhile the Chinese government has long sought––thus far unsuccessfully––to overturn the international trade ban on tigers maintained by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, in order to become able to market tiger bone wine and other tiger parts to consumers abroad.
“A perfect place”
Reported McClatchy News Service correspondent Stuart Leavenworth in April 2014, “’For visitors who love to see exciting activities, the Siberian Tiger Park is a perfect place,” says a popular tourist website, which notes that tourists can buy chickens, ducks and even cows to feed the tigers.
“A visit to the park reveals that many of the park’s tigers are kept in small cages, visibly rolling in their excrement,” Leavenworth wrote. “Wildlife experts say conditions at the Harbin park are dangerous not just for animals but for visitors and workers, too. In January 2011 , an employee driving a busload of visitors in the park got out to check the bus, which had gotten stuck in the snow. A tiger attacked and killed him as tourists in the bus watched in horror.
“Not a lucrative tourism enterprise”
“Like others of its kind, the Harbin park isn’t a lucrative tourism enterprise,” Leavenworth explained.
“The number of visitors doesn’t cover the cost of feeding and breeding hundreds of tigers each year. The Environmental Investigation Agency’s Debbie Banks and other investigators say the real money comes from sales of tiger pelts, tiger bone wine and other products that have been banned in China for two decades,” yet remain readily available.
But if either of the South African tiger breeding projects ever had designs on the Chinese market for allegedly medicinal products made from tiger parts, they appear to have long since lost the opportunity to cash in to the “canned lion” industry.
864 trophies & skeletons per year
Breeding lions chiefly to be shot by trophy hunters, lion farmers have over the past decade exported an average of 864 trophies and skeletons per year, South African Department of Environmental Affairs spokesperson Albi Modise in March 2017 confirmed to Shelley Seid and Matthew Savides of the Johannesburg Times.
The exports became controversial in January 2017, after the 2017 lion skeleton export quota of 800 was challenged by four leading South African wildlife photo safari companies and the big cat conservation organization Panthera.
Said Panthera president and chief conservation officer Luke Hunter, “There is not one shred of scientific evidence showing that canned hunting and legal lion bone exports take the poaching pressure off wild lion populations. In fact,” Hunter charged, “it is increasingly clear that these practices stimulate demand for wild lion, leopard and tiger parts throughout the world.”