Talk to Me
The more time I spend in the company of Big
Cats, the more I believe we underestimate their ability to
During my time in Luangwa Valley in Zambia, I
was attempting to return a lioness called Shingalana back to the
wilds. I had to leave the valley and return to Johannesburg for
treatment for an extremely bad bout of malaria. I spent two
weeks in South Africa recuperating, before returning back to the
Shingalana waits for my return on the bank of the Luangwa River
During this time, Shingalana waited everyday
on the side of the river and then on the day I returned, she
crossed the river to the place where my vehicle would
How did she know I was arriving? I had sent
no message to the camp. Was it some telepathic communication? I will never forget the greeting that she
gave me when I arrived, it lasted several hours.
At Tiger Canyons, the tiger Ron and tigress Julie are awaiting
release into a 5 000 Ha area. At
the last moment, the permit to release them is revoked. The
decision would cost them dearly. When I entered their boma, Ron
and Julie would always greet me with boisterous affection. The
day the permit was revoked, there was no greeting, they sat on
the ground and stared blankly as if to say, "so what is
the plan now?"
How did these two tigers know that things had
gone wrong? How did they know that a decision taken, would cost
them three more years in captivity?
Three game viewing vehicles are following
Vomba female at Londolozi Game Reserve. The beautiful leopard
heads north for the Sand River and enters the thick read bed.
The guest jeeps can't follow and turn back. I take my camera and
follow Vomba on foot into the dense reads. She slips
effortlessly down a hippo path under the date palm leaves. To
follow, I must go on all fours down the tunnel. As I enter the
dark tunnel, Vomba female, almost at the exit, turns back to
face me. Human being and leopard make eye contact, staring at
each other. I am still on all fours in a submissive position at
the same level as her. I do what I always do with tigers, I
chuff. It's a greeting that tigers often use, lions and leopards
use it occasionally. Vomba female immediately greets me back
with a chuff, then turns slowly and moves down the bank and
across the water, completely unconcerned.
I feel elated that I could have a
brief conversation with this beautiful female. Later she would
honour me by producing a litter of cubs under the deck of my
house at Londolozi.
A tigress called Shadow at Tiger Canyons had become a
habituated biter of tyres. After losing my tenth tyre to this
enigmatic cat, I became enraged as she attacked another tyre. I
fired a shot in front of her, which ricocheted up cutting right
through her pad on her back right leg. Wounded, Shadow fled into
the tall elephant grass.
Still fuming, I followed her, fully
intending to end her life. I came upon her lying on her back
with blood pouring from the wound. In an extraordinarily piece
of interspecies communication, she let off a series of staccato
chuffs. I have no doubt that she was apologizing and also
pleading for her life.
Tigress Shadow recovered completely from her wound
The communication had a profound effect upon
me. My rage subsided and I returned to my vehicle to call in a
vet to treat the wound.
To this day Shadow remains a wild
unpredictable tigress, but she never ever ignores my greetings
and always answers me with a chuff.
In the recent devastating floods, the male
tiger Corbett was hiding in some reeds. Ricky, my assistant, was
moving through the reeds on foot because the flooded roads were
impassable for vehicles.
Ricky Pieterse, right, with tiger
Suddenly Corbett charged from the reeds.
Ricky, by standing tall and shouting in a low tone rather like a
growl, was able to stop the charge. However, Corbett began to
circle him, menacingly and cuffed Ricky a few times. Ricky
changed his voice from an aggressive low pitched command to a
more calming chuffing greeting. Corbett responded to the
chuffing and after a short while, went back into the reeds.
I have no doubt that if Ricky, who physically
is not big, had continued with the aggressive approach, the
tiger would have killed him. Ricky's ability to communicate with
Corbett at another level, saved his life.
At Londolozi, I'm sitting with a 16 year old
leopard called Manana. Suddenly she gets up and moves off to
hunt. At 50 metres, she stops and looks back at me. She makes no
sound, but the eyes are enquiring, "Do you want to hunt with me,
this may be your last and only chance", is the way I
interpret the communication.
JV with Manana at 16 years old
For the next 3 hours as she hunts, she
communicates with me in a bewildering array of signals and
messages sent with eyes, body and tail. There is no doubt that
she takes the communication between human being and leopard to a
Leopard in relaxed pose
Leopard cub aggression - note the tilted head and
ears moving back
Leopard cub starts to growl in infra zone. Note the
canines beginning to show as it curls back the lip
A full aggressive snarl, lips curled back and growl
Aggressive tiger growl
At Tiger Canyons, tigress Julie has brought her first litter of
cubs out of the den for the first time. They are just 6 weeks
old. As I sit with Julie admiring the three cubs, an electric
storm rolls in over the canyons. A sudden bolt of lighting
strikes the hill behind us and one cub freezes in fright and two
bolt into the tall grass.
Powerful jaws gently grip the tiny cub by the head
Every 6 to 8 days Julie moves the cubs to a new den
site. This is identical behavior to leopards
Julie picks up the first one in her mouth and
returns it to the den. I find the second and take it to the den.
It is now raining hard, visibility is 10 feet, so I search on
all fours through the tall grass for the third cub. Suddenly,
behind me I hear a chuffing sound. Julie has the cub in her
mouth. Not only is she telling me she has found the cub, but she
has moved 20 metres away from the den towards me to tell me that
she has found the cub and I need not worry to search any longer.
This behavior shows concern and an ability to reason.
At Londolozi Game Reserve, a male leopard
known as 5:5 because of his spot pattern, is being viewed by 3
game drive vehicles. As I sit filming in my film vehicle, 5:5
strolls across sniffing some dried blood on the jeep. Casually,
he puts his head through the open door, 4 feet from where I am
sitting. He makes eye contact with me and decides I represent no
danger. He puts his front paws on the seat next to me. Now his
head is less than 24 inches from mine.
5:5 comes up to JV's film vehicle
I chuff him, he does not reply. I turn my
eyes away. It's a submissive act on my part (staring represents
aggression). I move the big black lens of my camera up to cover
my eyes and I film him. He stares directly into the lens. His
head is no more than 12 inches from mine. I lower the lens and
chuff him again. This time he responds. Human being and leopard
are now comfortable in each others presence. Casually, he sniffs
the gear stick, the camera box and the tripod. Satisfied he has
investigated everything, he slowly drops to the ground and walks
off into the bush.
Sixteen guests have watched spellbound during
the 4 minute interaction, only one has taken a picture.
A eighteen month old male tiger called Tiger
Boy has killed a mountain reedbuck. His mother Julie and his
brother Shy Boy are waiting nearby for a chance to get to the
kill. Tiger Boy straddles the carcass, snarling back at the two
waiting tigers. To capture the scene, I have to leave my vehicle
and go on foot. I take a movie camera a stills camera, a bean
bag and my white stick.
Tiger Boy lined up to the photographer straddling the kill,
bloodied teeth showing, lips curled back - a fearsome sight
In the vehicle I turn on a tape recorder with
a specially adapted microphone which can record infra sound, too
low for my ears.
As I approach the kill, Tiger Boy turns
immediately towards me, still straddled across the dead reedbuck.
He curls back the lips revealing bloodied teeth. Its a
frightening sight. I stop at a distance which I believe to be
safe, some 10 metre from the aggressive male tiger. I place the
movie camera on a bean bag and turn it on. I begin to circle,
shooting the still camera, keeping the 10 metre distance from
him. As I move he moves with me keeping his eyes riveted on me.
I hear nothing!
As I kneel down to shoot from a lower angle,
he charges. As he charges I hear the deafening growl, he is on
me like a flash, rearing up trying to rake me in. I hit him as
hard as I can with my stick.
As Tiger Boy attacks me, Julie and Shy Boy
charge in to take his kill. Like lightening, Tiger Boy turns
away from me and attacks his mother and brother and recaptures
In a state of shock and back in my vehicle, I
contemplate what went wrong with this communication.
The first mistake I made was, I believed that
I could dominate a young male tiger. The second mistake was to
move towards the kill. Tiger Boy interpreted this as intent
to steal his kill. (He was already under threat from the other
two tigers). The third mistake was to kneel down, moving myself
from a dominant position to a submissive one.
It seems inconceivable that I should make
such an elementary mistake. One factor in my defense, was that
although he was growling, I never heard the growl. Only when he
charged could the growl become audible to my ears. The low growl
as he faced me on the kill was in the infra zone, too low for the
human ear. This was confirmed by my infra zone tape recorder
which recorded the low growling before the attack.
A specially adapted Stenhauser microphone records tiger
communication in the infra zone
Back at Tiger Canyons, things are returning
to normal. It took us 8 weeks to clear up the debris. Many roads
are still under water and access into the sanctuary is
Tiger Canyons after the flood
I would like to thank the many people who
supported me with encouragement and financially, I would not
have survived without your help.
I urge all of you to watch "Tiger Man of
Africa" which is now showing in the USA on National Geographic
Wild. It will reach Europe in May and Africa in June.
I would like to thank Phil Fairclough and all
at Creative Differences Productions and all at National
Geographic for supporting me in this tiger series. My hope is it
goes a long way to creating awareness to the plight of the wild
Shortly we will begin the first ever 3D film
on tiger with Peter Lamberti and Aquavision, which will be
broadcast world wide.
On Sunday 5 June, the video "Shine a Light",
will be shown on Eastern Mosaic, TV2 (South Africa). This is a
song for the white tigress Shine
The musical "Nine Lives" is appearing on
YouTube. It is hoped that professional musicians will take the
songs and re-record them in aid of Tiger Conservation.
Destiny Child -
Celebrate the Big Cats -
Shine a Light -
Tiger Den Sites -
The Flood at Tiger Canyons -
Thank you again for all your
comments on facebook and contributions to help save the
magnificent wild tiger.
Tread lightly on the earth