I have known Tiger Corbett
from the moment he was born. I suspect he was born first in the
litter from his mother, Shadow, and as his feet touched the ground
he walked from the den into the 36 degrees centigrade heat outside.
By chuffing him, I guided him back to his mother. In short, I had a
conversation with Corbett within 10 minutes of his birth.
When the cubs were 16 days
old, I crawled into Shadow’s den. All the other cubs froze, hidden
in the thick bush. Corbett, however, turned and spat and snarled at
the camera. This strengthened my belief that aggression is in the
genes. Two weeks after this incident, I went to weigh the cubs while
Shadow was away from the den hunting. Once again, Corbett ‘attacked’
me and the camera.
At 14 months old, Corbett
stalked a group of men working on the fence and only the alert
watchman detected him in the grass. As the team clamored into the
jeep, he charged them flat out.
Early in October 2010, Corbett
was speared through the nose by a blesbuck while attempting to hunt
it. The vet, Dr Charlotte Moueix performed
a three hour operation and successfully saved him.
Corbett during the operation, Oct 2010
In January 2011 after 300mm of
rain fell on Tiger Canyon and washed away the Eastern fence, Corbett
was the first tiger to leave the enclosures. What followed -
www.jvbigcats.co.za/newsletters41.htm - is recorded and is
probably one of the most extraordinary reactions between a tiger and
a human. As Corbett charged through the water at Ricky, my
assistant, Ricky was able to calm him down by chuffing – this almost
certainly saved his life..
Broken fences after January 2011 flood
On one late afternoon this
summer, I was strolling out to the reservoir for a swim. Corbett
charged from a distance of about 80 meters towards me, breaking a
6000 volt trip wire and a 5800 volt main wire. Fortunately for me,
the mesh caught him and threw him back into his side of the fence.
Armed with only my swimming towel, if he had broken through the
fence, I believe he would have killed me. On yet another occasion,
while I was pulling a dart from his brother, Sariska, Corbett
charged from about 80 meters and I was just able to stop him by
firing a bullet in front of him. I began to believe Corbett’s levels
of aggression were unusually high.
For the past ten years, I have
been making films with Aquavision. It’s a credit to Peter Lamberti –
the founder of the company - that the people he employs are
grounded, hard-working, creative and have proved just recently to be
highly courageous as well.
Whenever I go to Aquavision
studios, Julie Brown always greets me with a big hug and a beautiful
smile and makes me feel welcome at the offices. During my last trip
to Aquavision, I suggested to her that she should come to see the
tigers. I was delighted when she phoned me a few days later to tell
me that she would be visiting the tigers with her parents. The
decision would prove to be momentous for me. She then stayed on with
the Aquavision film crew to film the first uterine sonar scan of
Tigress Julie in the wild.
As we practiced the sequence
in preparation for filming. Tigress Julie was cooperative as always
and sat up on the jeep with me and we went through all the
maneuvers with the sonar equipment – Julie totally ignoring the film
crew standing around.
It was a fine afternoon and
once again I felt the enormous privilege of being in the presence of
the peaceful, calm, intelligent tiger. It occurred to me how well
things were going at Tiger Canyon and in what good condition the
land and all the tigers were.
Having finished the trial run,
the crew got back into the jeeps for the return trip to the camp. I
went to latch the gates to the boma.
Adjacent to Tigress Julie’s
boma, was Corbett and his sister Panna in their boma. As usual,
Corbett had been paying attention to everything that was going on
around him while Panna was nowhere to be seen. As I struggled to
latch the gate, I kept looking behind me, as is my habit when at the
gates. I noticed a tiger on a rock about 120 meters away and
presumed it to be Corbett. In retrospect I realize that the tiger I
saw on the rock was Panna while Corbett had been crouching in the
grass not 15 m from where I stood, watching my every move.
Finally, I managed to latch
the gate securely and as I turned to go to the jeep parked about 15
meters away Corbett charged the fence from inside his boma.
All my gates at Tiger Canyon
are made from steel bars – the exception is this gate in the holding
boma, which has horizontal barbed and electrified wire strung
horizontally across it.
Somehow, Corbett managed to
reach through the wire and with his massive paws hook me around the
waist and drag me back against the gate. At this point, it flashed
through my mind to use the stick or the hand gun I carry, but
Corbett was too quick and his grip too powerful. In short, I was like
a rag doll being ripped as he tried to drag me through the wire into
his boma. It struck me that these were my last moments on planet
Earth. From a distance I heard Julie Brown screaming and to my
amazement, risking her life, she jumped off the jeep and grabbed me
by my legs and was in a tug-of-war with Corbett. But no human can
match a 450lb tiger for strength and power. Flashing through my mind
was to try to protect my throat and head. For a moment I thought to
sham dead. This was all futile in the grip of the powerful Corbett.
The film producer, Julie-Ann
Reid, joined Julie Brown trying to wrest me away from Corbett, but
the tiger wouldn’t let go. The incredible bravery of these two women
gave cameraman Phumlani Mchunu time to grab an iron bar from the
vehicle and smash Corbett over the head, forcing him to release me.
For people who have never
worked with tigers, to go up against a ferocious tiger armed only
with a steel bar, is an incredible act of bravery. They saved my
Thankfully I was able to
stagger to my feet and get into the jeep despite extraordinary pain.
Ricky Pretorius, my assistant drove brilliantly to Philippolis where
the ambulance was waiting for us. This 30 minute drive was on of the
most excruciating experiences of my life as the rutted road jolted
my bruised and battered body.
My good friend Dr Willie Marx
had taken care of logistics at the Bloemfontein Mediclinic and from
there things moved like clockwork. Dr Vivian Simmons and
anesthetist, Dr Nico Steyn, were standing by and for 6 hours the
dedicated doctors fought for my life – the operation ending at
I’d like to express my extreme
gratitude for their skill and dedication in saving my life.
On waking me up the following
morning, the three doctors were pale and drained. They told me it
was one of the most difficult operations they had attempted. In
short, Corbett had broken two of my ribs, splintered a piece of my
spine, cut through the wall of my diaphragm and lacerated my body
which took hours to clean and hundreds of stitches to repair.
When the nursing sister looked
at my blood tests she noticed that the testosterone levels were high
and promptly ordered all the female nurses to move to the other
wards and replaced them with male nurses!
The doctors told me they had
given me 2 units of blood and steroids to help me through. All of
them promised not to report me to the Olympic doping committee as
I’m hoping to enter the wrestling event in the London Olympics!
I’d like to thank the
following for their love and support:
Sunette Fourie, Zelda Kabola,
Hanro Reinecke, Skye Ebden, Hardus Vermaak, Kate Groch, BJ Watson,
Dave, Shan, Boyd, Bronwyn Varty, Gillian van Houten, Savannah, Tao
Tread lightly on the earth.