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Newsletter 27
03/11/09

Julie gives birth to 5 tiger cubs

All pictures by Wildlife Photographer, Daryl Balfour

Early on the morning of the 1st of November 2009, at Tiger Canyons in South Africa, I had one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I was able to enter the den of Tigress Julie and film and photograph five tiny new born cubs, one of which is white.

 
Incredibly, with me in the den was wildlife photographer Daryl Balfour and cameraman James Boon.
 
The story starts 4 days earlier when Daryl, James and I, had begun following Julie in the hope that we could capture the actual birth on film.

Daryl Balfour and John Varty
I had expected Julie to give birth on the 104th day after mating, but the gestation was longer than before and she eventually gave birth on the  107th day.

 
Julie is a unique tigress in that I have been with her for 10 years. I regularly hunt with her on foot and during her first litter I had sat many days with her in the den, but always on my own.
 
Any person with me is tolerated, even greeted by Julie. However to allow complete strangers into her den, just after birth, was a big ask.

 
In a leap of faith, Daryl, James and I entered the den. At first glance, there appeared to be 4 cubs. The white cub was fighting for a teat and appeared to be holding its own in the battle for milk. Julie was very calm and pleased to see me and proud of her new cubs.

 
As I filmed, I noticed a fifth cub pop out from under Julie's body. The litter was five, I was elated.
 
Although it will be extremely difficult for Julie to raise all five cubs (Julie has only 4 teats), I will not interfere. Nature will  take its course and if two or three cubs perish on the way, so be it.

    

 

Talking in whispers, the photographers moved around Julie and the cubs, setting up tripods and other paraphernalia. Julie showed no sign of aggression at all. Understandably she was completely exhausted.
 
Seatao, the father of the cubs, had been put in a holding boma so we could move into the den in safety. Two, three years old male tigers, Shy Boy and Tiger Boy, were in the area, but thankfully they remained in their territories to the south.
 
For a hour we filmed and photographed as the five cubs battled for a share of the milk. One cub hissed and spat at the camera when a lens was put too close to its face.

 
Julie rolled onto her back to allow the cubs easy access to the teats. In the confines of the den, with so many cubs, it is entirely possible that she rolls or sits on a cub and squashes it to death. I have seen it with lion, leopard and tiger.
 
As far as Daryl, James and I were concerned, we were outsiders, extremely privileged to be able to observe the miracle of life and the first few hours of 5 newly born tiger cubs. We sat in awe of how Tigress Julie managed the situation.
 
The journey leading up to this incredible birth, is almost more fascinating than the birth itself.
 
On the 10th of January, Julie gave birth to 3 cubs, a normal coloured male, a normal coloured female and a white female. Within an hour of giving birth, she had abandoned the litter without ever suckling them.

 
The reason she abandoned the cubs are complex. Firstly she was still hunting for the first litter and I'm sure felt responsible for them. 

Secondly I had moved her into an area where there are excellent den sites. This took her out of her territory and close to a rival female Shadow, who was also giving birth at the same time (newsletter no 19). This was undoubtedly a mistake on my part.

 
On the 18th of July she had come into estrus and over a period of three days, she has mated more than 150 times with the male Saetao.

 
I had photographed one of the matings on foot and had to retreat swiftly to the jeep when Saetao became aggressive (see YouTube)
 
I calculated the date of birth to be the 30th of October 2009, which was 104 days after mating.
 
I presumed the birth would be in the mid morning like Tigress Shadow and the same as her abandoned litter.
 
Daryl, James and I followed her from early in the morning of the 30th to sunset.
 
The 30th and 31st of October came and went, she was two days past her deadline. Could it be a large litter I wondered, her belly was huge to say the least.

 
This is certainly the toughest time for a tigress. Heavily pregnant and hungry, she must hunt, find and catch prey to feed herself and the cubs inside her.
 
It is at times likes these that I wish we humans were move evolved, that we could talk to other species and in my case tigers.
 
However Julie has her own way of communicating . She spent some considerable time moving a large rock to catch a frog in a stream. All sorts of theories were put forward. Was she eating the frog to delay the birth, was it self medication?
 
I believe she was simply saying "I'm hungry, I need food, I need energy if I am to produce these cubs". I took the hint and gave her a large piece of meat.
 
On the morning of the 1st of November, it all came together, Julie set off into some rocky outcrops with thick clumps of bush, ideal for den sites. I followed her on foot, with James and Daryl following in the jeep. Many caves and thickets were meticulously checked out. She decided she liked a dense thicket and began excavating some leaves out of the den. She lay down, it was mid morning, conditions were perfect.

   

 
Daryl and James moved into good positions in the den and we waited while Julie slept. I was convinced that when she awoke, she would go into labour. When she awoke, she inexplicitly stood up and left the den site never to return.
 
That afternoon a huge electrical Karoo storm rolled in and darkness fell across Tiger Canyons. Daryl, James and I were forced to give up our quest to capture the birth on film. Surely she would not give birth in the dark on a cold raining night.

During the night Julie and Mother Nature combined to bring 5 healthy cubs into the world, blowing away my theory that cubs would be born in the mid morning when it is warm and rival predators are least active.

 
On the morning of the 2nd of November, there they were, dry, healthy and suckling. Julie had done it her way, in her own time, away from the prying eyes of the camera. More importantly, she had suckled her cubs and given them the vital colostrum in the first feed. She had bonded with her cubs and they with her.
 
If she raises the white cub, it will be the only free ranging wild white tiger in the world.
 
Be assured, I will follow Julie and her cubs daily and I will keep you informed every step of the way.
 
Tread Lightly of the Earth
JV

 

 

Tread lightly on the Earth

info@jvbigcats.co.za
Copyright 2007 @jvbigcats  All rights reserved


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