How the tigress's were able to synchronize their estrus
cycles to within hours of each other, remains a mystery.
If the synchronized estrus was a mystery, the
synchronized births remain an even bigger mystery.
At 100 days into their pregnancies, I separated the two
tigresses, Shadow and Julie, into separate enclosures
where they would be free from the males.
The reference books stated tigers gestation period to be
103 days. Day and night I monitored the two tigresses,
concerned that the births might occur in the dead of
Day number 103 came and went and nothing happened,
perhaps the reference books were wrong. Lions gestation
can go as long as 112 days.
At 10 o'clock on the morning of the 104th day, Shadow
went into labour and I positioned myself outside the
I had seen a female leopard give birth standing, so in
my mind the tigress would stand and give birth, the cub
coming head first. How wrong I was. The first cub was
born with the tigress lying down, and I was taken
completely by surprise and missed the birth completely.
Shadow bit the umbilical cord, ate the afterbirth and
cleaned the membrane off the cub with her rough tongue.
For a tigress giving birth to her first litter, she was
doing surprisingly well.
As I placed the cub in front of her, she thanked me with
a continuous "chuffing" sound. I replied that was a
pleasure to be of assistance in my best tiger language.
Relieved I was still in one piece, I left the den.
Rather like a young crocodile has a egg tooth on its
snout to break open the egg, the tiger cub has razor
sharp claws. Once again mother nature had taken care of
the smallest detail.
It occurred to me that the other births I have filmed,
Wildebeest, Zebra, Topi, Impala and Thompson's Gazelle,
all occurred in the midmorning. The theory put forward
is that this is when predators are least active.
Could it be that the tiger is synchronized to give birth
when rival predators are least active.
A nomadic male tiger, a hyena, a dhole (wild dog), lions
and leopards in previous times could all threaten tiger
Shadow, exhausted after three births, lay down on top of the
cub, unaware that it was underneath her. How do I warn her,
I tried English, I "chuffed", I cursed, I swore. Amazingly
and unknowingly, I was now right in the den right next to
her, but helpless to rectify the situation.
The cub had the membrane over its head, the nostrils were
blocked it was gasping for air through its mouth. There was
no ways it could survive the weight of the tigress and then
like a piece of soap it slipped out from under her body.
Shadow gave an exhausted chuff and I replied with
congratulations. Tigress and human in a moment of time,
experiencing the miracle of birth together. Certainly one of
the most magical moments of my life and probably hers as
When I think of the births of my own children, with
gynecologists and mid wives in attendance, the tiger birth
had seemed so uncomplicated, so easy, so natural.
Human beings now number more than 6 billion while maybe
1000 tigers remain in the wilds. Worse still, there seems to
be no plan so save them.
After a fourth cub was born, lying down, I raced across
to Julie to see if she wasn't perhaps giving birth as well.
Julie was fast asleep, so I lay down exhausted and slept
next to her. When I woke up several hours later, my first
reaction was she has had the cubs and I have been asleep and
missed the birth completely. Fortunately no births had
occurred and no cubs appeared during the night.
The next morning Julie was extremely stressed out. She
was pacing up and down, trying to get to all the tigers that
stood outside her enclosure. All of them were thin. It was
obvious to me that they had not killed anything for a week
I gave Julie some meat, she immediately took the meat to
the tigers and indicated to me she wanted them to have it.
Julie's behavior was certainly not like a tigress about
to give birth. She continuously talked to the tigers outside
the enclosure. I would have given anything to have
understood this conversation.
I was confused, why would she want to give birth to cubs
in an area where there were males who were not the father of
her cubs and would kill them on sight.
Then suddenly, at 10 o'clock, the same time as Shadow had
produced cubs a day earlier, she went into a thicket and in
rapid succession, produced 3 cubs, one of which was white.
The den site was most unsuitable, on sloping ground with
a river running through the bottom of the den. It was
obvious to me that Julie had paid no attention in selecting
the den site.
The first cub rolled down the slope and nearly drowned.
Despite its distress calls, Julie did nothing. I brought the
cub back to her, but there was no response.
After resting for an hour, she got up and abandoned the
cubs never to return, despite their distress calls.
On releasing her back to the hungry tigers, an amazing
greeting scene continued for well over an hour and then all
the tigers disappeared to go hunting.
I spent a long time analyzing her behavior and came to
the following conclusion:
I had always believed that it was young inexperienced
leopards or tigers that, when producing their first litters,
would abandon them. I now think differently. If a leopard or
a tigress is physically down in condition, or if
environmental factors are against her, she will abandon.
Just like human mothers will terminate an unwanted
pregnancy, so too will tigresses do the same.
I know that Julie is a good and caring mother, then why
would she abandon?
The answer lies in the fact that to raise 3 cubs is a
huge physical commitment and a time consuming exercise.
Tigresses must spend 80% of their time in the early weeks in
the den with the cubs.
Julie's reasoning is that she is the main hunter for the
tigers at Tiger Canyons. Without her, the other tigers
aren't coping. She is needed to hunt to ensure the survival
of the other tigers. She cannot raise cubs and be a hunter
at the same time, so she sacrifices the cubs.
Julie also knows that Shadow is having cubs. The father
of those cubs is Ron who is her brother. Therefore Julie has
a genetic investment in those cubs. It makes sense to let
Shadow raise the cubs and commit the time, while Julie
spends her energy and time on hunting.
Tiger cubs are expendable. In the wilds, 30% never reach
adulthood. If conditions improve, Julie will come back in
estrus almost immediately and in 105 days can produce
another litter of cubs.
I was faced with a situation of three abandoned tiger
cubs, one of which was white, the first white cub born at
But we are primates, emotional, "clever", dominant. When
I posed the question to a group of people at Tiger Canyons,
not one said "let the abandoned cubs die".
The white cub has mystical, religious and financial
connotations. Could white cubs be relocated into wild
tigress litters one day, helping to save the species? Could
the white cub be sold to a zoo or even hunted one day as
trophy for a vast sum of money? Money that could be
re-invested into tiger conservation?
Julie thinks unemotional survival for herself and the
other tigers. John Varty thinks emotionally and by
necessity, financially. I would venture that under the
circumstances, the tigress Julie is cleverer than I am.
Tiger Canyons desperately needs to fence off more land
for the increasing tigers. This land needs to be stocked
with suitable prey. This is very expensive to say the least.
If the authorities will allow me to create another tiger
sanctuary, I know I can save indigenous forests and river
catchments in the province of Mpumalanga. This too will take
huge amounts of money.
As far as I know, Tiger Canyons has the only expanding,
free ranging tiger population in the world. It needs new
destinations to relocate surplus tigers.
I need to create new tiger populations in the hands of
private individuals, not governments who have failed so
dismally to protect them.
The rising global tourism, is the key to providing the
money to conserve the majestic tiger. People will come from
all over the world to view, appreciate and photograph this
The week I spent recording the births of two litters from
two tigresses, was extraordinary to say the least.
In summary, I was able to get into the tiny confines of a
den with a wild tigress while she gave birth. Later I walked
with her as she carried a cub to a new den site.
I observed Tigress Julie take her meat and offer it to
other tigers as she vainly tried to communicate with me that
she wanted to be with them. Here I failed dismally to
understand what she was trying to convey to me.
On a TV monitor linked to a surveillance camera, I
watched Tigress Shadow stand over her cubs like an umbrella,
sheltering them from the rain in a huge electrical storm.
I saw a tigress meticulously remove the sand and mucous
from a cubs nostrils, allowing it to breathe freely seconds
I experienced an exhausted, emotional thank you from
Tigress Shadow after I had brought a wayward tiger cub back
into the den.
I will never forget the blank stare, the penetrating gaze
from Tigress Julie when I returned a near drowned cub to her
which she did not want. I got the distinct feeling that she
felt I was intruding into a situation I did not understand.
I experienced extreme anger at the human species,
especially those that were blessed with tigers in their
countries, that we have allowed this magnificent creature to
almost slip to extinction.
Tigers are far more intelligent than we think. They have
the ability to reason, weigh up options and take decisions.
They are decisive in their actions.
At Tiger Canyons and perhaps elsewhere, they understand
that their very survival is at the whim of human beings. It
is an unenviable situation to be in.
They instinctively understand, which we don't, that the
land and hence the prey, is limited and to keep adding more
tigers, decreases their chances of survival.
In short, we human beings would do well to take heed that
our continued expansion of our species on a finite planet,
cannot continue for much longer.
It has been a privilege for me to live with this
magnificent creature, the tiger.
This last week will live with me forever.
Tread lightly on the Earth.