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Sniffer dog ends massive hunt for tiger on the run in Johannesburg

By Leon Marshall

Johannesburg, South Africa–For several days this week a Bengal tiger had the attention of Johannesburg folk riveted as it prowled about the bushes and grasslands on the outskirts of the city.

The animal escaped from the back of a pick-up truck as its owner was taking it from his game ranch to a veterinarian for vaccinations. The canopy door of the vehicle somehow opened and Goosey Fernandes had only a rough idea of where his beloved pet Panjo had jumped out, between where he last kissed and comforted him to where, an hour later, he stopped “to give him his bottle” and noticed with horror that he was no longer there.

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NGS stock photo of Bengal photo (in India) by Michael Nichols

The area, outside South Africa’s largest industrial complex, is made up of farms, smallholdings and settlements, and there were fears for the safety of people as well as of the animal. An army of police, professional trackers and volunteers was mobilized to scour the area, by vehicle along the roads and tracks, on foot across the veld, and by helicopter from the air.

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A tearful Fernandes pleaded with people through the radio and newspapers to report sightings and not to approach or harm the 17-months-old animal. He hand-reared it from a three-week-old cub after it had been abandoned by its mother. He even has one of its baby teeth hanging on a gold chain around his neck.

Insisting he had met all legal requirements for keeping the animal, he told reporters: “He is my life. He changed my life completely. He taught me so much patience.”

Fernandes was certain the tiger would not attack anybody unless provoked. Animal experts were not so sure. They feared that if it got injured when it jumped from the vehicle, or if it got hungry, there was no telling how it might react.

They are not convinced Fernandes has acted within the law in either the manner in which he transported the animal and in which he is keeping it. Permits are required in both cases, but the system has many cracks as a result of the laws being applied differently by South Africa’s various provinces.

Animal-welfare organizations are up in arms over the episode, however, and may well pressure the authorities into legal action against him. The trade in and keeping of exotic species in particular are a major concern.

Journalists followed the search parties, whose progress featured prominently in bulletins on television and radio and in newspapers. Tigers are not indigenous to Africa, and the idea of the enormous striped cat, already weighing 330 pounds (150 kilogram), skulking around freely stirred the public imagination.

World Tiger Day

July 29 (today) was designated World Tiger Day by governments of the 13 tiger range countries, who met in Hua Hin, Thailand, last January. 2010 is the Chinese Year of the Tiger.

The saga started on Monday and was finally brought to a happy end on Wednesday evening with the help of a five-year-old Weimaraner dog that has been trained by a security firm operating outside Kruger National Park to track wild animals, in particular predators. Though not familiar with tiger scent, it started barking at a spot in the tall grass next to the road from which, as it turned out, Panjo had been quietly watching the search party.

The tiger dashed off into the bush, but with the help of thermal imaging equipment lent by an insurance company it was located. It was lured with chunks of meat and captured.

The Star newspaper quoted Fernandes as saying: “He put his face on my face and I kissed him. I’m going to love my cat and put him in his cage and give him milk.”

tiger-star.jpgHe thanked everybody who helped with the search. “I never knew people could be so kind.”

Image: How The Star reported the capture of Panjo, photographed in the back of a vehicle last night.

The paper’s Louis Flanagan and Shaun Smillie reported that the roadside where the cat was found was lit up with headlights and searchlights, and the searchers clustered round Fernandes’ truck to get a closer look at the cat.

Passing truckers slowed and shouted “have you found him?” They hooted when told Panjo was safe.

  • The Times newspaper had a cartoon of a tiger, with searchers in the background, telling a springbok where they are hiding in the grass: “Actually I am too tame to hurt anybody.” The springbok answers: “Same here.” It is a spoof on the heavy defeats which the Springboks, as South Africa’s national rugby team is known, have just suffered at the hands of New Zealand’s All Blacks and Australia’s Wallabies.

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Nat Geo News Watch contributing editor Leon Marshall is an environmental writer in South Africa. A leading political journalist and executive editor for Africa’s largest newspaper group for years, he has won numerous awards, including a 2004 Reuters-IUCN Media Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Leon has covered climate change from a global and African perspective, having attended conferences on the issue in many parts of the world. He has written extensively on the ambitious transfrontier-parks program of the sub-continent and is now writing a book on the subject.

Leon Marshall’s blog posts >>

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