Ricky Pieterse is a long-time member of Tiger Canyon, and worked extensively with JV during the rewilding process. This important work in adapting the tigers to the South African habitat, which took place in the early years of Tiger Canyon, resulted in successive generations of wild-born, wild-raised tigers on the reserve. Today, the tigers of Tiger Canyon live as free-roaming icon predators that successfully hunt African prey species – an outcome that would not have been achieved without this first groundbreaking rewilding project.
We sat down with Ricky to learn a bit more about his experience during this time.
When did you first become involved with Tiger Canyon, and how was your experience working with tigers during the rewilding project?
JV employed me 11 years ago. During the rewilding process JV trained us first to walk with the cubs on a leash, and to swim with them in the rivers and pools. With time I got used to the process and became comfortable with this type of work. When I started at Tiger Canyon I was still quite scared of the cats, but by working with them I began to understand their behaviour so that I knew how to protect both myself and the tigers. If the cubs were a little naughty I learned how to talk to them, and JV explained to me how to use my voice: if the tiger became aggressive I lowered my voice so that he would calm down, while if I wanted to gain his attention I would have to raise my voice.
As one of the first people from the local community to work with tigers, my family were quite worried. I explained to them that while it was dangerous, I was learning how to work with the tigers and so I knew how to protect myself.
As the cubs grew into mature tigers I also learned that body language was very important. During one-on-one interactions, the tiger prefers it if you stand upright, and don’t remove your eyes from him. When a tiger looks at you, his eyes don’t belong to your eyes.
What effect did working with tigers have on your life?
My life changed completely. My life is now in line with the tiger, and my whole being has become wildlife.
Today three of my sons work on the reserve, and it’s a wonderful feeling that my family are a part of Tiger Canyon.