In the bucolic Karoo town of Philippolis, Ricky Pieterse is a local legend. Often spotted motoring down the main road in a dark green dusty Mahindra, he is greeted warmly by those mingling on the sidewalks as he goes about his daily errands. Ricky is not only respected as the head of a large family and as a well-established member of the local community, but also as one of few men to have worked with the great and elusive tiger.
In 2008 Ricky was appointed at Tiger Canyon, an ex-situ conservation reserve located 25km outside of Philippolis. The project sought to establish a self-sustaining population of wild Bengal tigers in South Africa, in an effort to preserve this endangered iconic cat. The first phase of the project involved a groundbreaking rewilding process in which four zoo-born cubs were taught to adapt to the local habitat, learning to hunt African prey species and fend for themselves on the vast, rocky plains of the Upper Karoo region of the Free State province. This process resulted in successive generations of self-sustaining, wild-born tigers that roam freely across the reserve today.
“When I started at Tiger Canyon I was still quite scared of the cats,” Ricky says of those early days, “but by working with them I began to understand their behaviour so that I knew how to protect both myself and the tigers. 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 his gaze.” He pauses, and then adds: “When a tiger looks at you, his eyes don’t belong to your eyes.”
As Tiger Canyon grew into the largest population of wild tigers outside of Asia, so too did Ricky’s legacy. Today, three of his sons work and live on the reserve with their families, an example of the reach that eco-tourism has within local communities, a culture of upliftment that resonates within the town of Philippolis.
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As the oldest town in the Free State, Philippolis is steeped in history. It is a long story of different communities coming together throughout the various phases of the country’s history, and today this close-knit society works to uplift its members.
“We are blessed in a sense because we know one another across cultural lines,” says Reverend Carin van Schalkwyk of the local Dutch Reformed Church. “When the need arises people work together, but there are also friendships that have been formed in the process.”
This sentiment is echoed by the project coordinator of the Good Work Foundation (GWF), Lulani Vermeulen, who, along with her team of local women, works on a number of skills development projects that aim to give students access to world-class education. The organisation has headed a number of important initiatives, including the starting of sustainable vegetable gardens, the building of a local preschool, and the opening of the Philippolis Digital Learning Campus in 2014, which provides students with iPads and tablets in a digital-era literacy programme. Along with this, the GWF also established the Bridging Year Academy, providing a year-long course on workplace skills for adult learners, and the Open Learning Academy, which connects with local schools to ensure digital fluency among all students upon graduation.
“When the community needs to work together, people come together and get the job done,” says Lulani.
Perhaps it is for this reason that Philippolis is fast becoming one of the most popular stopover destinations between the bush and the beach. Only 60km off the N1, travellers are drawn to this historical gem resting in the vast beauty of the rugged Karoo landscape.
“Philippolis is a very welcoming town,” says Carin Pienaar, owner of the Rooi Ooi, a popular local restaurant. “I often see visitors and locals sitting together over a meal, quickly making friendships in the span of one evening. It’s lovely to see the restaurant filled with people sharing stories about their lives, perfect strangers talking like old friends.”
For Ricky Pieterse, his work at Tiger Canyon has meant that his family may continue to live on together
in the place they call home, in a life that is unlike many others. “It’s a wonderful feeling that my family are all a part of Tiger Canyon. My life changed completely. My life is now in line with the tiger, and my whole being has become wildlife.”
Written by Naomi Roebert
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