Sunday, 30 March 2003

Paper Tigers by Carte Blanche - Mnet South Africa

Date : 30 March 2003
Producer : Nikki Berryman, Grant Nelson
Genre : Wildlife and Animals

To millions of South African viewers they became household names - controversial wildlife filmmaker, John Varty and his wife, television celebrity, Gillian van Houten. The camera portrayed them as the idyllic bush couple, working together to attempt to return orphaned animals to the wild.

The little lion cub Shingilana, Jamu the leopard ... it all made for great television.

In 1999 John began his most controversial production: filming the rehabilitation into the wild of two zoo-bred
Bengal tigers. The story would end with their release into a reserve in the Karoo.

[recording: telephone call]

John Varty: 'I spend my day working on plans to make our tigers fitter, faster, better hunters so that they're ready when they go out in the wild, they're fully prepared and that's what I do on a daily basis.'

But this has attracted sharp criticism. The IUCN's Cat Specialist Group is opposed to the idea of tigers free-ranging in a South African reserve and co-existing with our indigenous wildlife. They also doubt the conservation value of breeding with these tigers, which aren't pure

Devi: 'Your project has come in for a lot of criticism. There are some scientists who say your project does not have any conservation value at all.'

John: 'Ja, but there are many very reputed scientists who say that it does have conservation value.'

But the fact of the matter is that these
Bengal tigers are only here on a filming permit, which expires in November. Thousands of kilometres away in the UK, Li Quan, founder of the Save China's Tigers charity, is on a mission to save a different tiger. In one of the most ambitious private conservation efforts ever, Li is campaigning to rescue the critically endangered South China tiger from extinction.

Li Quan: 'This is a very, very high profile project - we're talking of the last six Chinese tigers and we're talking about a huge effort to give them a last chance.'

And Li left a high-flying career in the fashion world to give them that chance. She began by promoting the Maywahshun Captive Breeding and Wild-Training Centre, a project devoted to saving the
South China tiger.

Li: 'I started doing a lot of work establishing contacts with scientists in the cat field.'

But with only 60 in captivity, and less than 30 left in the wild, some of these scientists have given up on this big cat as a lost cause.

Devi: 'People told you that you were crazy but you still went ahead.'

Li: 'I just persisted and I believe that this is the tiger that represents the Chinese culture and has been a Chinese symbol and we just cannot let it go without a fight.'

Born and bred in
Beijing, Li, like millions of other Chinese, had no experience of wildlife in the wild.

Li: 'In fact for me, when I was growing up in
China, wildlife seemed to belong to zoos and zoos seemed to be the home for wildlife, for animals.'

Her dream to see a leopard in the wild took her to
Africa and eventually to the Londolozi Game Reserve. Founded by John and his brother, businessman Dave Varty, this eco-tourism venture was renowned for its leopards.

[recording: telephone call]

John Varty, filmmaker: 'When the leopards became well-known at Londolozi and it became habituated, we were able to run at high-occupancy at Londolozi and we were able to sustain our park very successfully, and that's why those private game parks had been so successful.'

Li: 'What greatly impressed me in Londolozi was that you can really see a leopard. And I thought this is great. I thought, why can't
China do the same thing?'

China didn't have the expertise or the land to make Li's dream of free roaming Chinese tigers, a reality. However, South Africa did. And with Dave's background in eco-tourism and John's experience with tigers, enlisting their help seemed the obvious way to go.

Li: 'I was so excited. And I thought what better choice do we have? I read the book and they seemed to be the top South African conservationists.'

Stuart Bray, Investment Banker: 'Many of the references came from the Vartys. We'd read Shannon Varty's book and in that book they sound like superheroes. It seemed very credible. We'd certainly visited Londolozi - it's a beautiful place, we enjoyed the experience. I was impressed that he had started and run a company and it seemed very credible.'

Li and her husband,
London investment banker Stuart Bray, first met John and Dave Varty in August 2001. For Li and Stuart the Vartys' Bengal project was an interesting experiment, but their aim was to find a way to save the South China tiger.

Stuart: 'It's going to be an extraordinary task to try to recreate habitat in
China and we don't have the time that it will take to do it in China from scratch. So, I began to see the pieces come together in a sensible, coherent plan.'

And the plan was to borrow cubs from Chinese zoos and rehabilitate them to the wild in
South Africa. But the ultimate goal was to return these tigers' offspring to a proposed pilot reserve in China, in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Stuart: 'If we just build a reserve in
South Africa and bring some tourists, there's no conservation value. It only works if we build a reserve in China and restore the habitat that's been lost and re-introduce the tigers there.'

The agreement was pretty straightforward - Stuart Bray entrusted $4-million to the Vartys to buy land, fence it and stock it with game.

Dave Varty, Eco-tourism Developer: 'Broadly speaking, he would provide funding, we would provide intellectual capital, expertise, etc. We would assemble the land, get the model, the economics of the model going, which included lodges, included rehabilitation of tigers, etc. etc.'

So Stuart set up and guaranteed a credit facility in South Africa in the Vartys' name. They were authorised to use this R35-million loan to set up the sanctuary. And it was up to the Vartys to rehabilitate the Chinese tigers and get them back to the reserve in
China. In return they would reap the commercial benefits from filmmaking and lodges.

Stuart: 'The original proposition with the Vartys, which never changed, was that we would try to provide them - that is, Li would try to provide them - with tigers by lobbying the Chinese government, which would be a valuable business proposition for them for their film business, for eco-tourism. In exchange for them committing to doing the hard work of building the reserve and eco-tourism in

At first everything seemed to be working out well. While Li lobbied the Chinese government for support, the Vartys bought up land surrounding their farms near Philippolis in the
Free State. The 30 000 hectare Tiger Moon Sanctuary would be supported by the Vartys?commercial operation, Tiger Moon Ventures.

Dave: 'I think we've got something to offer; I really think so. Despite what the scientific world says, I really believe we've got something to offer, and I really believe that tiger conservation will be fundamentally shifted as a result of this project. And I dearly wish that humans didn't get in the way and that we'd just kind of stuck to one agenda.'

But in May last year Li and Stuart began to doubt the Vartys' agenda. They had signed an agreement which stated that after February 2002 all the interests in land bought by the Vartys would belong to Stuart. It now seemed to Li and Stuart that the Vartys were buying up land for themselves.

Stuart: 'In an off-hand conversation with Dave's accountant, Dave's accountant mentioned that Dave had been buying land in his own name and I said, 'That doesn't sound right to me. He shouldn't be doing that'. And he was a bit embarrassed and quickly added, 'Oh, but he did with his own offshore money'. I said, 'But he shouldn't be doing that. He's supposed to be buying this as my agent. He can't be bidding against me for the same land'.'

The Vartys originally owned around 2 300 hectares. They now claim to own significantly more.

Dave: 'I think that it's quite important to say that we own 25% of the park and we have an option to acquire up to 60% of the park. From a legal point of view that's what
under dispute.'

But while the issue of land came under dispute, Stuart was becoming increasingly concerned over how his funds were being used.

The doubt set in in July last year when the Vartys admitted to borrowing a small portion of Stuart's money. For Stuart and Li, this was the thin edge of the wedge.

Li: 'We were a little bit shocked and we just said, 'This is not to be permitted because we had agreed that no money should be spent on your money-making ventures. You have to rectify this.'

Devi: 'Did he tell you how much money he had spent on Tiger Moon Ventures?'

Li: 'No, no. He said he borrowed a small amount of money.'

In a forensic audit instructed by Stuart, this small amount of money eventually added up to more than R5-million. A lengthy list of transactions included:

* R4,7-million to pay off Londolozi Productions?debt;
* R49 000 a month to cover Londolozi Productions?head office expenses;
* Over R300 000 to pay unauthorised salaries.

Stuart: 'He's gone all over the place. I have paid part of the mortgage on a house in Betty's Bay, I bought groceries, settled the lawsuit against Londolozi Films, I made vast loans to Varty Investments, I made vast loans to Londolozi Productions. All things that were unauthorized, and it was absolutely clear from the beginning that the money was supposed to have been used for land, fencing and animals.'

Gillian van Houten and other staff, unrelated to the sanctuary, are alleged to have received salaries from Stuart's funds. Large amounts of money are also said to have gone into the Vartys?personal loan accounts and towards paying off their Betty's Bay seaside property.

Stuart: 'Clearly it was a complete disregard for the project, for my money, just for honesty in general. There was no intention of doing what we agreed.'

But this original agreement was verbal. And although the Vartys themselves drew up a written version, it was never signed. The Vartys now claim that Stuart provided the money with an ill-defined mandate on how it should be spent. And Dave is emphatic that nothing has gone missing.

Devi: 'And they're making the allegation that some of the money - and a forensic audit was carried out which you know about - you know, R12 000 went into a bond in Betty's Bay, R4,7-million to clear debt of Londolozi projects, etc. I mean, is this true?'

Dave: 'The money's all been accounted for. We too have done a forensic audit. What's true is that the money's been put into developing this project. And it stands there for everyone to see. Everyone knows where the money went. We too have done a forensic audit. And there's really no point for me to say what's true and what not. Just let the process unfold. But we are quite comfortable that we know where all the money went, why it was applied, how it was used.'

Devi: 'You're saying that you know where the money is, you know what it is being used for and it's completely legitimate.'

Dave: 'As does their audit.'

Devi: 'Above board, there's no hassle?'

Dave: 'Yes.'

Devi: 'So let's prove the point. For example, R12 000 towards the house in Betty's Bay, what's the conservation angle on that?'

Dave: 'Ja, no point in going down this road now, it's just in too deep. I can explain to you treasury management etc. but ... And if it is around the money question, it's around what we call a treasury management issue, an allocation of funds. All the money is accounted for.'

David Leibowitz, Legal Adviser: 'All of the money according to the Vartys' own book of records has been accounted for and its expenditure on unauthorised and illegitimate purposes has been properly recorded. '

Recorded in such detail it has stunned David Leibowitz, Li and Stuart's pro-bono legal adviser.

David: 'The result is not an agreement over treasury management. There was no treasury management function here. Stuart gave them money to spend on land, fencing and animals - nothing more, nothing less. He did not give them money - millions of rands of it - to spend on getting their other companies out of debt. Which is what their own book of records show them to have done.'

And another transaction on their books was to pay for cheetahs.

Payment for cheetahs: R210 000

Li: 'There was an entry to pay for cheetahs. And so, I was wondering where are the cheetahs. What happened?'

Devi: 'So there's no truth either in that money being used to buy the cheetahs which were used in exchange for ...'

Dave: 'The cheetahs went out. The idea is they're on loan to our colleagues in Canada. They will breed them and they will be part of the same rehabilitation test back at Tiger Moon. And on a completely separate ... three years ago ... we have a similar agreement with the Canadians, that's how we got the tigers.'

Devi: 'So no money changed hands for that arrangement at all?'

Dave: 'For which?'

Devi: 'For the cheetahs.'

Dave: 'The cheetahs? We paid for the cheetahs from De Wildt and sent them to Canada. They will then be in Canada. The breeding of those cheetahs will then come back to the sanctuary.

Devi: 'That's just it. Because Li says you're using her money to pay for the cheetahs.'

Dave: 'They were paid for out of the money for stocking the sanctuary. That's correct.'

But their grievances with the Vartys are not just about money. Putting her reputation and the careers of several Chinese officials on the line, Li finally managed to gain the trust and co-operation of the Chinese government.

Li: '... basically convince them that to share a few tigers with the Varty brothers would bring so much more benefit such as building the Chinese Tiger reserve and training Chinese workers.'

The Chinese Wildlife Department began to view the project as having great significance for China's conservation efforts. But in October last year, just weeks before the landmark agreement was due to be signed with the Chinese authorities, the Vartys pulled out.

Stuart: 'We actually had a shouting match in Johannesburg. I accused them of lying to me - 'This can't be the real reason. You don't seriously mean to say that you are not going to sign because the Chinese government can't be trusted'.'

In their affidavit to the High Court Dave Varty claims that demands made on them by the Chinese Government were '... far too onerous and never contemplated at the outset of the project'.

Li: 'They actually took us hostage because what they wanted to do was they only want the commercial benefit and they didn't want all the hard work that would go with the commercial benefit.

Devi: ' ?even thought they had agreed to that earlier?'

Li: 'Yes.'

Despite this setback, the Beijing agreement went ahead in November 2002. Li and Stuart say that they had to set up a trust to hold up South Africa's side of the bargain.

Stuart: 'It's hard to explain how serious it is to have signed this agreement with the Chinese. I am absolutely committed to deliver on something I don't know how I'm going to pay for.'

The ideal model of eco-tourism funding the conservation goal now seemed to Stuart nothing but a pipe dream.

Stuart: 'Now we have committed to a huge project because they backed away from it at the last minute. And I'm just not sure that the whole thing even works because it was all a lie.'

And this led Stuart to withdraw virtually all the Vartys' commercial rights in the venture. But the Vartys have now gone to court to reclaim these rights and their interests in the sanctuary. And with the dispute having reached a point of no return, the Vartys play the patriotic card.

Dave: 'What is the agenda? Is it tigers, is it money, is it control? Because where we are coming from, sadly, the funders of this project, who are not from South Africa, who are foreign nationals, have decided to take it over.'

Devi: 'Can this be about an ego ... yours?'

Li: 'If it was about ego, I would have happily portrayed myself as a person to save the Chinese Tigers. Both Stuart and I have stayed behind the scenes. In fact, nobody in South Africa knew who we were.'

Li and Stuart now believe that from the start the Vartys' agenda in the South China Tiger project was primarily to make a movie.

Stuart: 'We talked about how sexy it would be if this was a project to save the most endangered tiger in the world and that this would be a very sellable story. They explained to me that selling a film is all about selling a story. And they didn't have an ending to their story. And they said they needed to know what the ending would be. If the ending was saving the South China tiger, then suddenly they have a very sellable story.'

Li: 'Their interest is purely commercial and to make money.'

[recording: telephone call]

Devi: 'Li makes the point that she feels that you were only interested in doing the movie, and that you really weren't interested in going back to China and from a conservation point of view, giving back to the Chinese people.'

John: 'That's her point of view, but the fact remains I'm heading back into Asia as we speak, looking at all aspects of tiger conservation, looking for land where we can restore the tiger on a much more sound land use system than it's on at the moment.'

Dave: 'Absolutely we're in for the filmmaking. Absolutely we're in it to making lodges, like we started out to do. In 1970 we were described as conservation mercenaries then because we were making money out of wildlife. It's become an industry and as a result, more and more land is being put under wildlife.

But while these seemingly noble conservation goals are bandied about, the legal wrangling over who owns what has taken an ominous turn.

Just after our interview with Li Quan, the Sheriff of the Court arrived at her farmhouse and served this interdict to four of her employees, which was initiated by John Varty. In it, he claims that he fears injury to his property, his family and himself.'

John: 'Well, they're big guys and they're armed and they're using intimidation tactics. There is subtle intimidation. On Thursday or Friday, three of them were at my tiger booms and that's not a situation that I'm comfortable with.'

John states in his affidavit that he fears that Li would not hesitate to put an end to the Bengal tiger project, even so far as to have the tigers killed. But as someone whose mission it is to save tigers, Li claims that this interdict was just another ploy to divert attention from the real issues.

Li: 'We do think that John Varty is trying his best to disrupt the Chinese Tiger project.'

Devi: 'Do you think that your employees pose a threat to John Varty?'

Li: 'No. They are here to do the work on the farm. And we have a lot of work to be done, things to be taken off and ?[inaudible] to be accounted. And also, they don't carry weapons.

Firearms, interdicts and incriminations ... while the courts decide the outcome of this fiasco, the cubs are waiting in Chinese zoos for what could possibly be the last chance for the South China Tiger.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: While every attempt has been made to ensure this transcript or summary is accurate, Carte Blanche or its agents cannot be held liable for any claims arising out of inaccuracies caused by human error or electronic fault. This transcript was typed from a transcription recording unit and not from an original script, so due to the possibility of mishearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, errors cannot be ruled out.