Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Anybody seen Panjo the missing Tiger!

Tiger still on the loose and lost

The Bengal tiger is 17-month-old Panjo, which disappeared somewhere between Groblersdal and Delmas in Mpumalanga on Monday night, according to his owners. By nightfall on Monday night he had been on the run for at least 20 hours.

As the light faded, owner Goosey Fernandes was desperate. "He is my life. He changed my life completely," he said.

Fernandes hand-reared Panjo from a three-week-old cub after he had been abandoned by his mother.

"He taught me so much patience," said Fernandes. "He sleeps with seven Jack Russells."

Panjo means playful in Italian, and Fernandes has one of the 150kg tiger's baby teeth hanging on a gold chain around his neck.

The animal was being driven from Fernandes's game farm in Groblersdal back home to Endicott, near Springs. He was suppose to go to a vet yesterday for his inoculations and to have a tracking chip inserted.

But Panjo disappeared from the Ford F250 he was being transported in, somewhere between Groblersdal and where the R25 crosses the N12.

Fernandes discovered he was missing at about 10pm on Monday. He and his wife Rosa think the canopy door may have come loose when Fernandes went over a pothole.

Fernandes said he had looked into the rear of the bakkie soon after leaving Groblersdal to talk to his tiger. "He still kissed me, purred - that is what he does. And that is when I last saw him."

Rosa claims the canopy door was locked.

Delmas police were called in around 4am. The family called radio stations early yesterday. Friends heard and offered helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to search. But no one knew where to start looking.

"We dispatched lookouts and informed nearby farmers," said Constable Ntomfuthi Mashiyane, who usually deals with truck hijackings.

Eblockwatch, an organisation usually involved in crime fighting, mobilised farmers in the area. The response was overwhelming.

"We got a farmer out here who was willing to use dogs that track lions in the Kruger National Park. There are farmers with dart guns. It is quite a circus," said founder Andre Snyman.

Helicopters and microlights also joined the search.

Then came the corny SMS retorts. "A tiger can never be spotted because it has stripes." "It is in the Woods," said another. And "Have you looked in your tank?"

The chief fire officer for the Victor Khanye municipality, Frans Bolton, said that because the tiger was semi-tame, they hoped it would behave like a cat and go home.

Some tiger sightings were reported in the area. At about 9am, some farmworkers saw Panjo south of the R42. Buthi Mahlangu claims to have seen him on a farm. "I saw that thing," he said. Unsure what it was, he ran.

A couple of hours later, a searcher in a Cessna said he saw Panjo near the R42. By nightfall, trackers "Mad Mark" Tennant and Ian Johnson had been brought in to look for him.

"Ian phoned me and said there was a tiger on the loose, and I thought he was joking. He said we have to find it before the hunters do," said Tennant.

The two men star in a programme on DStv's Animal Planet called Mad Mike and Mark.

Bolton said there were no plans to shoot the tiger or bring in dogs.

"You want to keep him as calm as possible, so that he listens to his owner."

By 5pm on Monday, a helicopter with an infra-red thermal imaging system had arrived.

Engineer Brett Wright said he had called his friend Mario Vergottini of RotorWay International, who organised a helicopter. They borrowed a thermal imager from optical company Carl Zeiss, worth about R400 000. They hoped to use it to spot the tiger from the air, by picking up its body heat.

Panjo, who wears a size 32 brown leather collar, last ate on Monday night and had missed his usual breakfast and dinner of milk and meat.