John Varty Can Take a Lion's Share of Credit for Preserving Africa's Wildlife

updated 06/22/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

With the sure instincts of a seasoned hunter, John Varty trailed the eight-lion pride through the South African bush. At times he leveled small trees with his Land-Rover in the struggle to keep up, but he never lost sight of his quarry—a lioness limping from an injured leg. When the pride settled down, Varty switched to a closed vehicle for safety, and the driver maneuvered expertly, splitting the lioness from the rest of the pack. Then, while Varty watched, his companion squeezed off two shots, felling the big cat. As the men moved toward their catch, her mate appeared over the body, menacing them as he attempted to drag the lioness away. Seven shots from a Bruno .375 Magnum scared the great beast off, and John Varty and his sidekick—a veterinarian—set about their life's work—saving the big game of Africa. The cat lay tranquilized by the darts from the gun while the vet ministered to the broken bones in her leg and Varty poured cool water over the animal's head. "Nature and time will heal the leg," Varty announced with satisfaction.

Making the wild lands of Africa teem with nature is a crusade for John Varty, 30, and his brother, David, 28, who have spent the last seven years transforming 27,515 acres of family property 310 miles east of Johannesburg into a model game preserve. Before the Vartys set up Londolozi (the Zulu word for "protector of living things"), the ecological balance of the Eastern Transvaal bushland was in a shambles. Man-made fences had cut off migratory patterns, and hunters eager for the valuable ivory tusks had decimated the elephant population. Without the elephants, who eat some 350 pounds of leaves and bark every day, the bush grew over the grasslands and grazing areas that fed animals like zebra, buffalo and rhino. Says John: "Everything complements everything else. Disturb the cycle and all is gone."

The Vartys have started to restore the cycle. They bulldozed overgrown forests; the rotting wood attracted insects, followed by the birds and snakes that prey upon them. As the grass returned, so did the grazing species, and their predators—lions, leopards and cheetahs. The brothers even airlifted tranquilized elephants by helicopter from Kruger National Park. Supporters like Paul McCartney, Elton John and the late Peter Sellers donated $3,000 each to sponsor an elephant and give it a name: Sellers called his Satchitananda, though nobody seems to know why. Elton's choice was less obscure: Betty.

The 30-bed tourist camp the Vartys run at Londolozi has attracted visitors like Cheryl Tiegs and Tina Turner who pay $60 to $120 a day to rise at dawn and trail wildlife, sample impala steaks and listen to John Varty sing his environmentalist songs. "They make you feel extremely comfortable," says Turner. "It's as if they were born to make this their cause." By 1985, John hopes, Londolozi will be able to provide more meat than a cattle ranch of comparable size. "We've got to keep the ecological values while we provide food for the local people," he says. David makes clear the Vartys' position on South Africa's sensitive racial question: "We're trying to involve blacks," he says. "In South Africa, they are the people who are going to influence the wildlife of the future."

The Vartys have chosen a Spartan life. John lives in a one-room thatched cottage without electricity or hot water on the banks of the Sand River. David and his wife, Shan, 24, who runs the camp gift shop, are building a larger house nearby. The camp has a telephone, but radios are banned. John prefers the sound of his beloved elephants as they uproot trees and gobble their leaves. "That," he says, "is music to my ears."

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