Chasing the tiger: Panjo and I

By Andy Rice 2 August 2010

In a world of Julius Malemas, poisonous politics and never-ending court cases, South Africa was hungry for Panjo the tiger and his great adventure. A simple story about a majestic cat and its two-day walkabout. Hoax or not, Panjo’s tale captured the country’s imagination in a most unusual way.

It all began early on Tuesday morning with a phone call to Talk Radio 702’s traffic desk, where Aki Anastasiou picked up the receiver.

The caller was Rosa Fernandes, and her story went something like this: “My husband and I were driving to the vet with our pet tiger last night, but when we got there we realised he’d escaped. Won’t you please help us find him? Oh, and he weighs 140kg, has mighty sharp teeth, paws the size of a baby’s head and – while we’re talking about babies – he doesn’t particularly like children. But he’s really nice and likes to eat chicken.”

Blink. Blink.

Most people would have hung up the phone and gone back to drinking coffee and updating their Facebook status. A pet tiger? In Africa? Jumping out of a bakkie? But Aki sensed the story was real and alerted the newsdesk to announce that a Bengal tiger called Panjo was on the loose. Rosa was on record. Police knew about the missing animal. A vet in the area confirmed he knew Panjo. And so, the hunt began. 

The story turned out to be just as Rosa had explained. Panjo had been en route to a vet for a few routine shots when the back of Goosey Fernandes’ bakkie popped open. The roads in Mpumalanga are pockmarked with potholes and the bumps may have disguised the cat’s sudden exit. Somewhere along the R25 between Groblersdal and Bronkhorstspruit, Panjo the 17-month-old tiger was now on the prowl.

Once news spread, phone calls about sightings began to flood in. The first day of the search was spent near Delmas, which turned out to be completely off the mark. The search party – journalists in tow – moved from one spot to the next. Helicopters, microlights and aircraft circled overhead. Fernandes and his son combed the tall, dry bush. Sometimes they just called Panjo’s name. Other times they tried to lure him out with great chunks of red meat. 

Keen on adventure, two trackers, Ian Johnson and Mark Tennant joined the search. With about 40 years of tracking expertise between them, they were adamant all they needed was a spoor. The hours rolled on, the sun set and a beautiful orange moon rose between the power lines in Delmas. One by one, the sightings proved to be false and the search lost momentum. Panjo’s owners went home to regroup, journalists filed their stories and Panjo the tiger… well, who knows what he was doing.

Shortly after midnight the next morning, 23-year-old Rikus Jansen was driving home along the R25. He was headed towards his home in Groblersdal, having been away on business in Bloemfontein. All of a sudden, he saw a “big animal” walking across the road, hit the brakes, did a U-turn and switched on his brights.

“I saw the tiger, man,” he said. “It was a big ass thing.” 

Jansen, who looks like a cross between a farmer and a Star Trek geek, told the story without exaggeration and convinced Panjo’s owners that his sighting was genuine.

For the whole morning, Fernandes and his friends searched the area where Jansen saw the tiger “trotting” off into the bushes. By now, donations were pouring in from all quarters. Helicopter pilots sponsored flight time, a woman printed 9,000 colourful posters saying “Lost Tiger”, an astrologer offered to read the star charts to locate the cat, a “psychic” said Panjo was injured and surrounded by rocks, a game farm donated a dog they used to track predators,  another allowed a Shangaan tracker to spend the day looking for Panjo, a company donated thermal imaging cameras, a restaurant offered to feed the search party… You get the picture. South Africa was intrigued.

But for all the goodwill in the world, there was still no solid lead.

Then came Charlie Ntuli. The elderly farmworker had noticed some paw prints in the soil near his home, and was convinced they were too large to be a dog’s. It turned out they were … and at about 4pm that day, trackers Ian and Mark pronounced the discovery of the first concrete proof that Panjo was (a) real, and (b) somewhere in a forest just outside of Verena. There were no tracks leading out of the woodlands, so Panjo had to be inside.

The prints were in pristine condition – four toes and three lobes at the back of the paw. And fresh too, no older than 12 hours.

The light was disappearing fast, but the search intensified. Two teams were assembled, one with the Shangaan tracker (said to have a supernatural bond with the earth) and the other with Zingela, the search dog (scientifically proven to have a way better sense of smell than any human).

For several hours, the teams wandered through the thin trees, fighting off twigs that snapped at their faces. Their searchlights sliced through the pitch-black woods.  The paw prints were everywhere and it was clear the tiger had spent a long time there. But how many hours ahead was Panjo?

Just after 8pm, the teams rendezvoused at the roadside base camp – still minus the elusive tiger. To the crunching of chips and slurping of cold-drinks, the teams discussed new strategies and decided on where to search next.

All of a sudden, Zingela stopped drinking and stared at the trees. It took a split second for his nose to pick up the scent and he began barking loudly. Something was lurking just a few metres away, at the very fringe of the forest.  

Fernandes, his son Justin and the trackers shot off into the woods. Everyone stared into the trees. Most imagined they caught a glimpse of animal or it’s big reflective eyes. But Panjo was making a run for it, deciding that spying on his own search party may not have been the smartest idea. When his owners came close he growled, probably because he was confused.   

But he couldn’t outsmart the thermal cameras for long and, after hearing familiar voices and smelling dinner, surrendered peacefully.

Fernandes said he gave his cat a big kiss before collaring him and putting him back in the same van from which he’d escaped 48 hours earlier.

Think about that for a moment. A man who lost a tiger in Africa goes in to fetch him in a dark forest, goes down on his knees and kisses a cat that will, soon enough, grow into a 300kg predator.

Before Panjo’s breath steamed up the canopy’s windows, journalists got a chance to look in and – just for a moment – get lost in his wild eyes.

The next day, reporters streamed through Fernandes’ game farm. Meeting the troublemaker and watching him drink milk from a bottle or play in the sprinkler. Panjo returned home with a few scratches and a mighty appetite. Watching him and touching his fur, felt surreal. In his mannerisms, Panjo was an oversized house cat. But when he growled, something in your stomach twisted and reminded you of a most unnatural clash between the human and animal kingdoms. 

We’ll never know how Panjo spent his two nights of freedom. But judging by his character, he probably didn’t stalk farmhouses, sharpening his claws on the rocks and waiting to eat some unsuspecting schoolgirls. Some starry-eyed chancer called Fernandes and tried to blackmail him out of R10 000, claiming the tiger had eaten his livestock. Panjo probably did no such thing.

Fernandes admits he made a mistake and swears the ordeal was no publicity stunt. The permits issue seems to be filled with grey areas and only time will tell what will happen about the way Panjo was being transported and kept. His owner will probably be slapped with a fine. The story also kicked up some dust about the keeping of endangered animals. But by Friday, the Brett Kebble trial was back on the front pages and full equilibrium had been restored.

The tale of the tiger came with a bizarre beginning and a happy ending. And if it was all a set up, well, so be it. Not many times will you be able to reject an annoying telesales call by saying: “Sorry, I can’t talk right now, I’m hunting a tiger.”.

By Alex Eliseev

(Alex Eliseev is an Eyewitness News reporter. He spent almost 48 hours on Panjo’s trail.)


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