Rogue Wildlife Conservationist Uses Radical Means to Save, Film Animals

Mar 22, 2012 4:47pm

Filmmaker John Varty is one of the most controversial wildlife conservationists in Africa and has caught heat for his radical ideas on how to save endangered species, from the tiger to the rhino.

While most conservationists and biologists take great pains not to intervene with the instinctive behavior of the animals they study, Varty told “Nightline” anchor Bill Weir that he wants to capture and move wild tigers from their natural habitats in the jungles of South Asia to the one of his luxurious private game reserves in the arid savannah of South Africa. His adventures will be featured on Nat Geo Wild channel’s “Caught in the Act,” on Tuesday, March 27.

“People ask me, ‘well, what do you do?’ I say ‘I don’t work, I just live,’” he told Weir.

Varty began the experiment in 2000 with a pair of tigers purchased from a Canadian zoo and has spent years coaxing them and their offspring to coexist with lions, encouraging foreign tiger cubs to nurse from a lioness and to hunt strange prey.

Among the critics of Varty’s Tiger Canyons project is renowned big cat conservationist and filmmaker Derek Joubert, who told Weir it “makes as much sense as bringing Grizzly bears into the Everglades.”

But Varty claims his plan is better than any others.

“Tiger Canyons is halfway between the 45,000 tigers in captivity, and the 1,500 dwindling tigers in the wild,” he wrote on his website. “To be honest with you, I don’t know of one Asian government committed to saving the tiger.”

No less controversial is Varty’s plan to save endangered rhinos. Poachers slaughter hundreds each year  to chainsaw off the horns and sell them for astounding profit in Asian markets. According to ancient beliefs, the horn is the original Viagra.

“It’s purely myth, it has no scientific base,” Varty told Weir. “It’s hard-packed keratin…but a large horn now is worth a million rand [about $130,000].”

While trading rhino horn is strictly forbidden, Varty wants to legalize the trade so game ranchers and wardens like him could harvest horns from live rhinos and use the profits for conservation. A rhino horn will eventually grow back, but since the immobilization process needed to dehorn the animal is inherently dangerous, The South African Veterinary Council has declared the process unethical.

Varty was not swayed. ”This year alone, we’ve lost 320 rhino. We lost over 250 rhino last year. There’s 500 rhino that’s already gone, that’s 500 million rands that I could be using to protect the other rhinos and for furthering the conservations,” Varty said.

On his reserve, Varty has managed to capture some incredible samples of animal behavior on film: A mother Cape buffalo stalking the leopard that stole her calf, and a mother leopard who forces a python to regurgitate the cub it swallowed.

“I know nothing about cameras, I’m not a good cameraman,” he said. “I rely on technology. I put my camera on automatic. I know nothing about anything, but all I have is, I have a great passion for what I do.”

Varty described the leopard’s bizarre ritual of burying parts of her cub, eating others and then spending three days calling for her lost offspring.

“She went through a whole ceremony, she was grieving, she disposed of the cub, so that hyenas and other scavengers couldn’t get it and then what was most amazing, she stood on top of this rock and she called for the cub,” he said. “It’s a whole process that they go through and they finally get closure and they move on.”

However, some biologists take issue with that interpretation, and plenty find fault with his theatrical flair. But like all the encounters he has had in the wild, Varty considers angry resistance as just another part of nature.

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