I am incredibly humbled and fortunate to have had the opportunity to interview my childhood hero, the legendary John Varty. Due to poor signal we had to do the interview via Whatsapp voice call, I penned down our interview below. What struck me first about John Varty was his down on to earth persona, a humble man with a fountain of knowledge and wisdom.
John Varty (born 27 November 1950) is a South African wildlife filmmaker who has made more than 30 documentaries and one feature film starring Brooke Shields. Varty is also leading a controversial project which aims to create a free-ranging, self-sustaining tiger population outside of Asia.
John made several documentaries that were widely distributed: Living with Tigers, Shingalana, Jamu, the Orphaned Leopard. Swift and silent won an American Cable TV award in 1993 and The Silent Hunter won The New York Gold Award.
In 2011, John Varty starred in Leopard Queen, a documentary about a leopard he has filmed for 17 years. In 1992, he wrote, produced and starred in Running Wild, a feature film starring Brooke Shields.
John Varty writes and performs conservation songs with titles “Big Cat Love”, “Celebrate the Big Cats”, The Tracker”, “Rolling Thunder”, “Masai Man” etc.
John is also the author of Nine Lives (2011)
In the Jaws of the Tiger (2013)
Read my enticing interview with the legendary John Varty below.
INTERVIEW WITH JOHN VARTY
Children are our future and as Nelson Mandela put it, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.
What is your approach to making children aware that wildlife is on the verge of extinction, and what their generation can do to try and slow this process? How can we teach our children about wildlife conservation?
ANSWER: Children’s education. Um, the problem you have in the globe now is that the vast majority of your populations are in mega cities. Um, kids are growing up in the schools, in big cities and towns and they detached from nature.
Yeah. Last year I sent out a newsletter where I asked all the headmasters and mistresses how they felt about their curriculum and how they felt about the education that kids, uh, were getting when we were adding 100 million people every 14 months to the planet. And virtually all of them said the same thing. That you have to reconnect your kids back to nature in some way, whether it be getting them to the Kruger park in a bus, uh, for the lesser privileged or getting them on a wilderness trail in unfollow Z for the more privileged, uh, but some way they have to make the connection with nature. Uh, otherwise they’ll grow up like kids in New York city that think that milk comes out of a bottle and have never seen real grass. So education, um, you have documentaries. Um, you have books, um, on wildlife and bird books and all that kind of thing.
But they have to teach, they have to taste it and they have to feel it and they have to have fun in it. So children playing in the river and having mud fights, um, is where it starts. And unfortunately for, for millions of people that live in the squatter camps and live in, uh, third world conditions, um, you know, if they’re running around in the puddles, they’d probably get color. So you have to reattach your children to nature. Obviously the schools can change their curriculums and they can do all sorts of education, but if the kids are not feeling it and not touching it, um, then, um, you, they’re not going to have an attachment church. We asked a, um, you know, there are millions of people on the West side of the game, parks on the West of the side of Kruger and, and the private game reserves.
And those kids are growing up, um, and the angry, you know, they don’t have proper food. We’ve had five years of drought and not getting proper nutrition because the maze is not crying. The pumpkin’s have all been scorched, and now we’ve got Corona virus. Um, even if they could afford the taxi, they can’t afford to buy, um, you know, food at the supermarket. So those kids will grow up looking across the wire into the Kruger park and saying, well, there’s the food over there. And that’s how they get into this first subsistence poaching than rhino poaching. So they grow up with a one sided, uh, view a rhino horn is worth money and you can make money out of, out of crime and out of poaching. Um, because at the young age, there’s no connection to the natural world.
John you are a legendary film maker, conservationist and big cat expert. You have done ground-breaking work in conservation and on many other platforms. Do you still have goals and ambitions you still want to accomplish?
ANSWER: Oh yeah, I still have goals and ambitions. Uh, I’m in lockdown for two months and, I’m working on five books. Um, I’ve written, I’ve been in lockdown for three weeks now. I’ve written three songs, which I hope to record as soon as I get out of lockdown, uh, making musical videos. Um, I’ve got a TV series, hopefully called, Riding the Tiger, uh, either with National geographic or Animal planet. Um, so yeah, because of my injuries from the helicopter crash and the tiger attack, I can’t spend as much time in the Bush, but I’ve got thousands of images, which I’m sorting through writing books, writing poetry, I’m writing songs. Um, yeah, it’s never ending because, you know, awareness is everything. You talked about the kids’ education, hundreds of kids, probably thousands of kids were influenced by my early movies and eventually ended up with a career and as a guide or a game ranger or whatever.
And so books and videos have a, they have a crucial role to play when, when children are young and they are very impressionist, impressionistic. So they’re a vital tool and not a substitute for getting into nature that they can act as a catalyst to get your children, um, you know, interested in wildlife and to make them understand what they way they are in the greater scheme of things. Um, so yeah, anything that inspirational and creates awareness, you know.
John together with your brother Dave, you established an accomplished private game reserve. Few people know you were a game ranger in your younger years. Can you share a few of your most memorable experiences as a game ranger?
ANSWER: Well, I mean there’s thousands of experiences. Um, but probably the defining moment for me was when I met Ken Tinley the ecologist, because he’s the first one that opened my eyes to the fact that it’s no good. The wealthy people having game farms if they don’t share the wildlife with the surrounding people who are living in poverty because those people, the poor people are eventually going to invade into the rich people’s land.
They’re going to take the rhino; they’re going to take the leopards and whatever. Um, so that was the birth of the idea that game parks could create jobs, they could uplift communities, they could provide fresh water and they could provide resources and that you should see the surrounding communities as an advantage, not as a, you know, not as a place where all the poachers live. So that has probably been my greatest achievement in that our private game reserve is a leader in that field. And then I applied the same to Tiger Canyon when I created Tiger Canyons. I did the same kind of thing. The other thing that was huge for me was my friendship with Elmon Mhlongo because here was a guy the same age as me, but he’d never been to school. He couldn’t read or write. But he showed me, we spent 14 years together tracking a leopard.
We went set 17 consecutive years through to Kenya to film the migration of the Wildebeest. And he showed me how, uh, how to live in, how, what it’s like to live as a third world person, where you’re living off the land. Um, and if you don’t understand how the land works and how the animals work and how the birds work and how the insects work, then the land’s not going to feed you. I made a film called The Crossover. All the white people hated it and all the black people loved it. Um, and that was basically how Elmont lived and how he grew up before he was introduced to tourism. And then two years ago, I started a band with four, Shangaan girls also very rural, dependent on the land for their food, dependent on the boreholes for their water, go to the Sabi river to get fresh water and that the crocodiles attack them, the buffaloes attack them.
So they are living on the edge of nature. And when you’re living like that, when it rains in, your roof is leaking and when the drought comes, all your pumpkin’s are scorched and you have no food, which is happening now with Coronavirus. Um, it, it’s very real. And so I’ve been able to connect throughout my life with, with tribal people and rural people and understand how they, how they make a living and how they interact with wildlife, how they utilize the wildlife without destroying it. And that’s probably, is not exactly an experience, but that is what I got from the early years on our private game farm.
Conservation and conservation methods has changed over the years. What is your stance on conservation and conservation methods going forward?
ANSWER: You cannot build game reserves, wealthy people can’t have game reserves amongst, of, uh, you know, a massive humanity that a third world and, and poverty, it just ain’t going work. They’re going to steal your rhino. They’ll eventually steal your lions for the bones and the body parts. They’ll steal the leopards for the skins. They’ll steal the Impala for the meat and they’ll attack your tourists. So you have to get into balance with your surrounding community in order to, to survive going forward.
We are finding ourselves in a historical moment by the devastating effects of the Coronavirus. The world has literally come to a standstill. What impact do you think this pandemic has on the environment? The Coronavirus has devastating effects on us all, but in a way, I feel like the earth has a chance to breath for the first time in a long time. What are your views?
ANSWER: Mmm. Well, the impact of Corona is a serious, obviously it’s turned off the tourism. Now, for example, I used to spend, I still do spend 5 million a year protecting my rhino. Um, but with no tourists, the question of course, is going to be, um, where am I going to find the 5 million Rand to protect the rhino?
In the communities around, and when I’m talking, I’m talking from a wildlife point of view. Um, so you know, you have this community now, um, that surrounds the parks. Now inside the parks we have no tourists, which means we have no money now that 5 million with helicopters standing by and guys patrolling every single day is lost. So how do we protect the rhino? And they know that on the outside they dip disparate on the outside and so now they realize the target is softer than it was before. So they start invading, invading for rhino horn, but also for subsistence poaching cause they’re hungry. So why is snares trying to catch the game? And which goes back to my point that I made before is that if you try to be an Island of wealthy game lodges in a sea of humanity, which is poor, you’re not going to succeed. You have to close that gap between the rich and the poor, and that it comes to back to the Tinley sharing of the wildlife.
The Coronavirus has had detrimental effects on the tourism industry. Do you think the tourism industry will recover from the effects of this pandemic?
ANSWER: Okay so staying on Corona, nobody knows how long Corona’s going to last, but Corona, if it lasts a couple of years, will devastate the tourist industry. I mean a million people apparently have got Corona now. The United States is expecting between 150,000 and 200,000 people to die. America’s our major market to come to Africa. Uh, so that’s been devastated. Europe’s been hit hard. So nobody’s getting on airplanes there. If there are airplanes even flying.
So, yeah. Unless we can find a vaccine and we can stop Corona, it’s going to take years and years to recover. The other dangerous thing is that there are probably five or six other viruses waiting in the wings, more dangerous than Corona. It’s five years ago when myself and Sunette Fourie came up with an hypotheses that Spanish flu, bird flu and swine flu would, um, mutate into a flu that would devastate human populations.
In fact, in 2018, Bill Gates was already right on the money with the talk that he was giving. So it didn’t take rocket science to work out that, um, you know, as I call her Gaya, as I call it, the goddess of earth, uh, was going to start to level off the human population because basically you’ve got 8 billion people on planet earth and the earth can only support 4 billion. So to get back into a sustainable situation, Gaya, God is of earth, is going to have to remove 4 billion people. So we did an exercise and worked out and we looked at all the diseases, Ebola, measles, smallpox, bubonic plague, malaria, anything that’s ever affected human beings. And we came up with a hybrid flu airborne that could move fast and could be transported quickly across the world. And we came up with this flu and I actually wrote a book about it and that was five years ago and what exactly what we predicted as come to pass.
So, um, but the danger of course, is that they get rid of Corona and there’s another one breaks. And it’s even more deadly. So, um, yeah, you could be watching, you know, the changing face of the social system of, of the planet. But one thing’s for sure that the people that remain on planet earth will have to, to ensure their own survival, get back into a partnership with nature because, you know, when they elected Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil and within weeks they were burning the Amazon forest on Donald Trump’s leadership as well. Um, that kind of leadership and that kind of politics, those were red lights blinking and you had Amazon catching fire, then you had Australia on fire and then Corona broke. So it didn’t take rocket science to work out that something dramatic was going to happen. It happened quicker than we all thought that many of us, I’ve been putting it on social media for quite a while, knew that, um, human beings could not behave and carry on the way they were behaving towards planet earth.
You are such an incredibly strong, positive, ambitious and knowledgeable person, yet, you have survived many obstacles in your life. What is the biggest lesson you have learnt from these obstacles?
ANSWER: Well, learning from obstacles. I mean, uh, Gary player the golfer was a great friend of mine, still is a great friend of mine. Um, he’s now lives in Plettenberg Bay. Um, and the trick is to, and what I tell my children, the trick is to turn the negative to positive. So you have to go inside the Corona devastation and say, there must be some positive things. And the other thing I tell my kids, and I tell any kids that I am a role model to, uh, you can’t afford to be too specialized. Tourism has now died. So I’m moving two books, I’m moving to music, I’m moving to movies, anything that’s not tourist related. Um, you have to be multitalented and multi-skilled in the changing world. And the example I always give is, um, is the Impala. The Impala is a generalist and it can feed on leaves, it can feed on grass, it can feed on marula fruit, marula nuts, and the Sable’s a specialist. It has just a few types of grasses that it feeds on. Soon as conditions turned bad, the Sables in trouble, he can’t survive. The generalist Impala survives everywhere because it’s versatile. And so the trick in a changing world is versatility and the ability to adapt.
How would you like to be remembered one day?
ANSWER: Mmm. How would you like to be remembered? I’m sure. Uh, I didn’t really think about that. Uh, um, I just think about survival. I had the malaria 14 times. I’ve been in a helicopter crash. I was lucky to survive that I wasn’t a target attack. Uh, I was hugely lucky in that I had brave people that hit the tiger over the head. Um, yeah. So I didn’t really think about, uh, just think about, you know, having my, my ambition really is to have fun every day, you know, so if I have a bad day, then I just change my, my lifestyle. But I’m very privileged to be able to do that. Cause I have a tee shirt, which says, um, I’m answerable to no one except the laws of nature. And that’s true. And where I live in how I live, I’m answerable to. But I work for nobody. I’m answerable to nobody.
Uh, I do. Everything I do is for myself and my, and for my family and for the animals and for the land. And so I just try to make the most of the privileges that I’ve been given. So, but, uh, I would say probably, I hope that I’ve, and I know I have influenced a lot of young people to go into careers in wildlife and that’s through my movies now through my music, uh, my poetry, my books and all of those kinds of things. So, you know, if you ask me what, what actually are you, um, I’m a, I call myself a wildlife communicator, but I’m actually an activist. I’m a game ranger. I’m a filmmaker, I’m a musician, I’m a poet. Um, yeah, I’m all of those things. And recently in the last 10 years I’ve, I’ve done a lot of, um, I’ve done a lot of protesting against zoos and we’ve involved in the East London zoo and now the Bloemfontein zoo is going, is going to close.
And I think Corona as well, people will not go to zoos. There’ll be too dangerous places where they can pick up the flu and they can pick up viruses. Uh, I see more, more zoos going down and that’s a good thing.
Where do you go to find peace and tranquillity? You favourite place to visit?
ANSWER: It comes from inside. Um, I don’t have a fairly, a favorite place to visit. I go to visit my family, my boys in Cape town, um, at university. And my daughter was supposed to start a course in Kruger park, four months course to become a guide. That’s, that got canceled. Um, so I think you, the tranquility you carry from with inside yourself. So, um, what I do is I, I play my guitar three, three hours a day. I write a song, which is very therapeutic for me. I write a book, which is very therapeutic.
Um, I use a lot of humor. A lot of my posts are on, on Facebook or just tongue in cheek, just to get a laugh. Although most people don’t, doesn’t see the humor in them. Um, yeah, I think you need the humor, but you’ve got to love what you do. You know, if you’re in a job earning money to go and do what you like doing, I think there’s not enough time for that. You need to be in a job which brings you, you know, satisfaction and brings you upliftment and brings you joy. And so, you know, surrounded by wild animals and elephants come to drink at my swimming pool. Um, and I can go out and within half an hour I can be with a leopard. When I was in my tiger project, within 20 minutes, I could be with a tiger, a wild tiger, that those are the things that reached my life.
And the pictures I’ve taken and the stories I’ve written and the songs I’ve written in the music I’ve made is just a, an extension of that, um, connection with the natural world. And I’m fortunate to live in a revolution, a communication revolution. And so I could sit in my house and I can send a post on Facebook across the world. I can sing, send a song across the world. I can send a picture across the world, a book across the world. So I can influence people in South America, North America, Canada, Europe, England, Australia, New Zealand, all over the place. So I have a very wide, um, network, uh, of, of friends, Facebook friends and personal friends, or also have a network of what I call stringers that people bringing me information all the time. So I have a guy that tells me every day what’s happening in America and a guy in Australia, another girl in India telling me what’s happening with the Tiger every, every day she sends me information.
So I get my knowledge from, from people across the world, from a network of people. And then I take that information and, and I make it available for the man in the street by, or a book or film or song, uh, some form of communication.
My heartfelt gratitude to Mr. Varty for his time to conduct this interview.