We sat down recently with Tiger Canyon guide and lodge manager Chantelle de Bruin to hear a bit more about her experience of the tiger project. This was her story…

Why did you first decide to get involved in Nature Management?

I always wanted to do something in nature because I could never see myself sitting in an office. In my Matric year I went to a winter workship at Nature Management at Centurion Acadamy and I just fell in love with both the scientific and practical aspect. It also included veld management, which provided a different element by learning how a reserve actually works: for example, if you know what type of soil you have, you’ll know which plants to grow, which in turn relates to the type of animals you keep on the reserve. I never thought it would be that complicated, and I enjoyed that.

Added to this, I enjoyed the freedom of being outside, not being confined to an office space. I liked that no two days would ever be the same, because even though you may plan your day there’s always something that surprises you.

What first attracted you to Tiger Canyon?

I heard about the tiger project from a previous guest of mine at the reserve I worked at before Tiger Canyon. At first I thought the idea of having tigers in Africa was bizarre! Later on when I found out Tiger Canyon was looking for someone I sent in my CV and a week later I got a call from John Varty himself.

Tigers was a first for me but working for an ex-situ project was not. There are quite a few rehabilitation projects around the world that are trying to make a difference in areas where their natural habitats are no longer sustainable. That said, when I first heard about tigers in Africa I was quite surprised – especially working with such a huge predator, and in the Free State no less, which is traditionally the home of the cheetah.

How has your experience been as a guide at Tiger Canyon?

It’s been very different. There were a lot of things I learned when I started here. Having guided with Big Five just doesn’t prepare you for guiding on terrain like this and with predators like this. Their behaviour is so different. They just don’t seem to classify themselves into a group like a normal predator would. If you take the characteristics of the tiger, they’re playful, they’re solitary but they form coalitions, some have blatant disregard for other tigers, others are more aggressive. Their personalities don’t seem to match what you read in scientific journals which describes all tigers in much the same way. Working in a place like Tiger Canyon gives you the opportunity to learn all of this.

Guiding at other reserves is different because you see so many other animals so that you don’t get to familiarise yourself with one particular animal.

What have you come to enjoy the most about working with tigers at Tiger Canyon?

Animal behaviour is one of my passions, which is why I tend to pay such close attention to their individual traits. To me, the tiger is a very fierce predator, though there are some areas in which they’re very vulnerable which most people don’t realise.

It’s the stories behind the tigers that catch me the most. Each one of them is different, and if you watch the tigers closely enough none of them behave in exactly the same way. If I take one tiger in particular, Tigress Panna, which, though in most people’s opinion may not be the most beautiful tiger, she shows the amount of character needed to survive in the wild.

For me predators are really interesting, because they don’t just graze and sleep, and tigers in particular are very intelligent predators. Tigers know what to do to survive in the wild. I’ve watched tigress Oria follow warthog in order to figure out their walking path. After a few days she’ll know to wait in the evening as the light gets low and the warthog returns to its burrow when she can easily pounce on it, and dinner’s served.

Do you believe that the tiger’s intelligence is one of the reasons they’ve been able to adapt to the African habitat?

Yes, they are extremely adaptive. The only other predator that matches them in this way would be the leopard. With the tiger’s size they’re able to hunt bigger prey. I’m not saying that the other cats are not as intelligent, I’ve just never seen this level of intelligence displayed in any wild area.

Why is tiger conservation important to you?

Growing up, tigers were always my favourite. They play a very big role in the ecosystem , and with regard to felines they are considered to be the apex predator of the planet, because they are the largest of the four big cats. Traditionally they’ve been portrayed incorrectly, with the lion described as the apex predator – when in fact the tiger is truly the king of the jungle. Quite often in movies the roar of the lion that you hear is actually a tiger’s roar, which is quite sad because the tiger has been diminished in importance in a way. Today, If you just look at social media, the amount of tiger photos being shared shows that they occupy a huge part of human life, and in India tigers play an important cultural role.

So if more people know about the tiger project it would make a huge impact in raising awareness about the tiger. Habitats all around the world are struggling to preserve the tiger and to keep them safe from poaching. The more awareness that is raised the easier it will be not only to keep the tiger project going but also to save tigers from going extinct.