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One of Tiger Canyon's resident tigers. The reserve is one of the few places where you can see these big cats roaming free outside their native Asia.
One of Tiger Canyon's resident tigers. The reserve is one of the few places where you can see these big cats roaming free outside their native Asia.
Image: Supplied/Alex Kirichko for Tiger Canyon

“If we are to restore stability between the forces of nature and ourselves, then we need to start rewilding the world now,” says legendary environmental activist Sir David Attenborough.

Along the banks of the Vanderkloof Dam in the Free State, you'll find a sanctuary where Attenborough's words have been brought to life through its innovative conservation efforts: Tiger Canyon Private Game Reserve.

This one-of-a-kind escape is one of few places where you'll have the opportunity to see wild tigers roaming free outside their native Asia. Some have said it's possibly the best place in the world to capture images of these majestic animals. Photographers find the rugged landscape, the golden Free State colours and, of course, the tigers themselves very compelling subject matter.

Tigers aren't the only big cats that may strike a pose for the reserve's camera-wielding guests when they're out on a game drive — it's home to many cheetah too. In fact, Tiger Canyon was born out of the desire to conserve both of these incredible creatures, which have become endangered due to the loss of their natural habitats to human settlements.

A pair of Tiger Canyon's cheetahs. The reserve was the first to reintroduce these wild cats to the Free State after they had been absent for more than a century.
A pair of Tiger Canyon's cheetahs. The reserve was the first to reintroduce these wild cats to the Free State after they had been absent for more than a century.
Image: Supplied/Byron Grobler for Tiger Canyon

In Asia, wild tiger numbers have been decreasing over the past 100 years, while all the Free State's wild cheetahs were destroyed over a century ago because they preyed on farmers' sheep. Ironic, then, that the cheetah is the symbol of the province and its rugby team.

The concept of creating a safe haven for wild tigers in Africa became reality when permits to keep these animals were granted to Tiger Canyon in the early 2000s, before the current Biodiversity Act (No 10 of 2004) came into effect. This act does not make provision for allocating any land to an exotic species, no matter how endangered they are, and so the reserve's permits are unique.

In 2013, Tiger Canyon became the first to reintroduce wild cheetah to the Free State, after an absence of more than 100 years, when four captive-bred big cats were rewilded with stunning success. Today it works hand-in-hand with the Endangered Wildlife Trust and has supplied 10 cheetahs to repopulate other reserves in SA and Malawi.

Tigress Julie, the main lodge at Tiger Canyon, was built in 2017. Its location on the edge of a dramatic canyon catches visitors by surprise as the area is known for its flat grasslands. Small and exclusive, this luxurious getaway is powered off-grid by solar energy and boasts no shortage of creature comforts.

As with many African game reserves, this lodge sustains Tiger Canyon's conservation efforts and so it was a devastating blow when Covid-19 brought international tourism to a standstill.

Fortunately, Tiger Canyon has not only survived, it's probably in a better position today than it was before the pandemic; the staff have become a closely knit team used to multitasking and keeping things going on a shoestring budget.

Tiger Canyon is very grateful to local wildlife travellers who came in great numbers during 2021, helping to sustain the big cats and the entire reserve, and looks forward to welcoming guests for a wildlife adventure like no other.

• For more information about Tiger Canyon, or to book your stay, visit Tigercanyon.com.

This article was paid for by Tiger Canyon Private Game Reserve.

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