Sabi Sands Photographic Safari

Captive cheetah kills 3 year-old boy on filmmaker John Varty’s farm

In a tragic turn of events a 3 year-old boy has been killed by a captive cheetah on Tiger Canyons, a tiger breeding farm near Philippolis in the Karoo region of South Africa.

John Varty carries a young cheetah undergoing ‘rewilding’ on his Tiger Canyons farm © Barry Wrighy

Police spokesperson Motantsi Makhele said the boy was airlifted to a hospital in Bloemfontein after the attack, but succumbed to his injuries during the trip.

John Varty, owner of Tiger Canyons, confirmed the incident but said that it was not yet clear what happened. The boy killed is the son of Jacob Pieterse, a Tiger Canyons farm employee.

Police have confirmed that an inquest docket had been opened and that no one had been arrested in connection with the boy’s death.

Varty is a controversial and outspoken figure. His maverick strategy “To create free ranging self-sustaining populations of tigers, in the hands of private enterprise in and out of the Asian continent” on a barren Karoo farm in South Africa has its detractors. His strategy of ‘rewilding’ big cats seems to include cheetahs.

Varty frequently attracts controversy – including a protracted and crippling legal battle with former partners in Tiger Canyons farm and being hospitalised with two broken ribs, lacerations and puncture wounds after one of his tigers attacked him. He also accidentally shot one of his tigers, a new mother, in the foot. The tiger subsequently recovered.


Further information as provided by John Varty on his Facebook page:

“…on the Friday night a large amount of booze was smuggled into the compound … the gate that blocks the cheetah from entering the compound was carelessly left open … on the Saturday morning the cheetah entered the compound through the open gate ….the victim should not have been there, he lives in another compound …..the victim’s mother did not pay attention … she allowed the 3 year old boy to play outside the house unattended …the male cheetah attacked the kid causing extensive injury to his neck and head … although the doctor in Philippolis told me there was little chance of success I hired a helicopter and flew the boy to Mediclinic in Bloemfontein. … the boy was alive but brain dead on arrival … no action will be taken against the cheetah … the mistakes made were human … a 2.4 metre electrified fence will be constructed around the compound … all women and children have been removed … my condolences go to Jacob and Sophie Pieterse, the parents of the child … at the end of the day I am responsible for my workers actions … I take full responsibility.”

Guests viewing tigers on Tiger Canyons farm © Sunette Fourie


A guest tiger encounter with John Varty at Tiger Canyons farm © Porsche South Africa

A tiger chases a cheetah at Tiger Canyons farm © Richard Sheehan

Africa Geographic Editorial

We're the Africa Geographic editorial team – a diverse set of editors, designers and social media natives, all united by our passion for this addictive continent.

  • OWL

    Oh man, how sad!

  • Jill Mckie

    Doesnt help seeing people petting these wild animals – people just think they all tame and safe

    • Charlie Domino

      Most of them are. These instances are as rare as the family dog killing a kid.

      • Stephanie Pollard

        You are just plain wrong.

      • Penny Bradford

        That’s a problem with what he is doing. It contradicts reintroducing them into the wild. They shouldn’t be tame at all.

  • Peter Apps

    You know the phrase an accident waiting to happen – well this one did. The loss of life is tragic but completely predictable given the circumstances. Wild animals are not pets.

    And we don’t need tigers in Africa.

    • Susan Tang

      You do need tigers in Africa.

      • Peter Apps

        What do we need them for (besides personal gratification and publicity) when we already have a full suite of apex predators with their own conservation problems ?

        • Willie Sutton

          If you’d take time to learn about the reasons for the project and how it is run, instead of making your inane comments, you’d be better off and not look nearly the fool you do.

          • Peter Apps

            Enlighten me, please. What are the reasons to bring in members of a species that has never occurred in Africa, to a habitat which bears no resemblance to the natural habitat of tigers, and to teach them to hunt prey that they will never encounter if they are ever taken back to their natural habitat ?

            I judge how a project is run by its results, both intended and unintended, desirable and undesirable. I don’t consider big cats being cuddled or posing for photos to be desirable, although it does seem to be intended, and I certainly don’t consider children being mauled to death to be desirable, and I cannot conceive of it being intended.

          • Penny Bradford

            Peter Apps is right. Only true sanctuaries that rescue wild animals in danger should be allowed.
            Breeding should not be allowed!

        • Jill Mckie

          Tiger bone wine

      • You’ve got lions, leopards, cheetahs, servals and caracals and an African wild cat. Can’t see why you need tigers, which belong in Asian forests.

      • Neil McDonald

        Susan Tang ……really? We DO need tigers in Africa??? Pray tell why? Africa has survived ok without them, they are not a native species and should not be introduced. Africa has a magnificent array of big cats and other predators so why bring in something from another continent that has never occurred naturally in Africa?
        I’d love to hear your explanation. It is a totally unnatural situation and Mr. Hollywood Varty needs to stop this ridiculous rubbish. A tiger chasing a cheetah…you’re kidding.

  • Jean Thompson

    What an imbecile! Tigers don’t belong in Africa and any cheetahs around a small child is irresponsible. John Varty is only interested in making money with letting people be photographed with wild animals. Why does So. Africa permit this? Why does So. Africa permit lion farms? This is one tourist who won’t spend anything in such an irresponsible country with concern to their wildlife.

    • Charlie Domino

      You wont be missed. There is great conservation value in ecotourism. This was an unfortunate incident but kids die every year on horses or by the family dog. Lethal animal is lethal animal. You just think it’s a big deal because you don’t have any actual frame of reference for being around a cheetah.

      • Stephanie Pollard

        No it is not conservation. Tigers are not native to Africa and don’t belong there. This guy is either greedy or stupid.

        • Penny Bradford


  • Jade Dos Santos

    What a hypocrite! I’m appalled at John Vs response to this tragic incident on his FB page. He has chose to put the blame of this child’s death on the child’s parents and his staff. This is horrific. He is fully responsible for the child’s death. He chooses to keep animals in captivity, in cages and behind fences. He is not only a racists pig, he is hypocrite that runs a large zoo and thinks that messing with both indigenous and foreign animal species is conservation.

    • Penny Bradford

      Right! Anyone with a facility, such as this, where a gate can be left carelessly open is it in the wrong.

    • Penny Bradford

      And you’re absolutely right about his ideas on conservation! How do we get them to change the laws??

  • Michelle Rogue Ster Schireman

    A tiger chasing a cheetah??? What the what!?

  • Peter

    and the buck stops where !!!!!!!!! Karma John and as usual he will blame his staff and he said the kid should not have been there playing outside his house as landowner the buck stops with him his Philipolis SAPS buddies will look the other way, a 3 year old died and he will continue to make money as if nothing happened

  • CAG

    You take full responsibility? – How is it that you knew of the booze, and that your staff would therefore not be responsible as they normally are? Yet knowing the compounds are not correctly fenced [your admission in the above] you still allow that sort of drunkeness in the compounds? Really if you are going to continue your petting zoo, you should ban all use of alcohol on the premises. Your tigers and cheetahs earn your living for you, so for goodness sake have the good sense to treat them as the live guns they are, and give them the respect they deserve. Fence the place around your compounds correctly, and do not wait for another death to happen. I agree that the cheetah should not pay the price for the poor child’s death, or it’s parents neglect, but really be proactive rather than reactive and use some of the money to make sure everyone is safe. You are putting people at risk with your behaviour. How many tigers in Asia has your business actually saved? How many cheetah? Your set up is a zoo,
    just with bigger enclosures.

  • Dolph C. Volker

    Training to release tigers in Africa? Not sound. No African nation would approve of such a thing. Non indigenous species have wrecked a continents ecosystem balance as a result of such moves… by accident or on purpose.

    Terrible about the little boy. He had no chance. Negligence will result in manslaughter charges against Varty. Then who knows what happens to these animals.

    You can never be too careful when it comes to safety with wild/captive animals but mistakes will happen. Always have 2nd barriers to prevent disasters, as what was lacking in this case. There were no protective barriers around the homes that were inside the game range.

  • Franklyn Vega

    Despite the controversy, JV is some what of an idol of mine. Also, despite several incidents due to the cats, these are proactive movements essential for the survival of the species. Sure, we dont need tigers in Africa. But this is the first tiger rewilding facility in the world. He was the first to come up with this idea. Through trial and error he will eventually succeed in releasing rewilded tiger in their natural range. The reason behind the training taking place in South Africa is due to “loose” laws to be able to do such project! Whether his intentions mean well or not he took inovative actions to rewild tigers that were born in captivity. Giving them another chance to come back from the brink. This provides a new genetic library for wild tigers in dire need for genetic diversity. John vartys failures are just learning tools for future rewilding facilities since such thing has never been accomplished! Besides, for anyone complaining, would you rather them remain in zoos as zombies of the past? Or see them become what they were meant to be? He’s saving the species and doing what he has to do to get it done. Money is not easy to come by in wildlife conservation. People just dont care enough to donate! So pictures with tigers, ecotourism, payed feedings, all nessecary attempts to save the species overall.

  • Franklyn Vega

    My condolences to the family of the boy & my prayers out to the boy himself.

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