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Newsletter 42

Talk to Me

The more time I spend in the company of Big Cats, the more I believe we underestimate their ability to communicate.

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 valley.

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 arrive.

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 The day the permit was revoked, there was no greeting, they sat on the ground and stared blankly as if to say, "so what is the plan now?"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.

Vomba female

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 new level.

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 audible

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 and neck

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 his kill.

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 difficult.

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 tiger.

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 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0shNDUOkM_s

Celebrate the Big Cats - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvgVe8UdArY

Shine a Light - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qp1a3SKV3tI

Tiger Den Sites - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQUcgT-13_U

The Flood at Tiger Canyons - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lSruKcm_hos

Thank you again for all your e-mails, comments on facebook and contributions to help save the magnificent wild tiger.

Tread lightly on the earth


Tread lightly on the Earth

Copyright 2007 @jvbigcats  All rights reserved


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Talk to Me

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Elephant Trust