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    News from The Northern Kruger

Tracking the Trackers

Posted by Hlengiwe on Wed July 3, 2019 in RETURN Culture.

When does the skill of tracking become an art?
When it’s in the blood.

Reading the morning news in the river sands is never less than fascinating. Fresh tracks and droppings tell the story of nocturnal wanderers as clearly as if they’d signed the visitors book. It’s fun to check, because even us amateurs can read some signatures, and with each walk can get a little better at it. I have no difficulty recognizing an elephant track, and its direction of walking. I can tell primates paws from hooves. But after that I’m a beginner, and liable to mix up a hyena with a leopard track.

The guides love showing off their skill in this department. They put a lot of hours into learning the tiny details that distinguish a jackal and wild dog print, or the difference between the mark of a small lion and an adult leopard. It’s discovery that never ends, a skill that can be honed over a lifetime.

Sometimes we try to follow an animal’s trail. Watching the guides, it’s soon clear that they don’t make judgments based just on the animal prints. Like detectives, they piece together evidence and come to the main suspect. As well as prints, there’s fresh droppings to consider. The combination of droppings, tracks and scents is spoor, an Afrikaans word defined as “the marks left by a wild animal as it travels”. Guides also know what’s likely in the locality, what they spotted in recent times, what time of day or night the animals move. If they saw elephant at the location yesterday evening, and a leopard prints are on top of them, they know the cat was passing in the night.

I love when they get down low and start really getting into the story. Looking for little cobwebs in the print impression. Checking the color of the sand disturbed – does it still look damp, indicating a very recent passing? Using their rifle to measure the stride of a lion, to estimate the shoulder height. They have techniques to take in a mess of prints and come up with a good estimate of how many animals are moving together in a pride or pack.

If I am impressed by their skill, they in turn are in awe of the talents of traditional trackers, those who have it in their DNA. The best of the best come from the San community, the Bushmen of the Kalahari. Following a successful hosting in 2018, we’re looking forward to welcoming back master trackers from the remote Ju/’hoansi community of Namibia to show their artistry here in the Makuleke.

It may be quite a different terrain to their home of Nyae Nyae pans in the arid Kalahari, but it makes no difference for these guys. There are animals here, like nyala and bush-buck, that are not to be found in Namibia, but they have no difficulty visualizing the animal from the spoor.

Watching the San trackers, it is clear that their ability transcends a skill and is an art form. When tracking a particular animal, they hardly pause to examine prints. They spot the tiny clues, freshly broken twigs, nibbled branches, grass that has been brushed aside by the flank of an animal. They are literally on the scent too. And tracker ears are tuned to the bush-veld radio, understanding the meaning of alarm calls. More than anything, they appear to have the ability to get inside an animal’s head, to think like one, imagining where it would move to next.

Tracking can be an individual or group activity. When speed is vital, whether for hunting or chasing poachers, three trackers spread out, and can literally run while tracking. The center individual is on the spoor. If they lose it, a signal or low sound alerts the other two, who work to pick it up. Whoever gets it is then on the trail, and the others take up positions to either side.

There are only a handful of San trackers still hunting in the traditional way. In their native lands, they were renowned in the past for persistence hunting, literally using their superior stamina to run down prey. Thankfully, they don’t run here, and we can expect a much calmer demonstration of the field arts when they arrive in July.

Author: Hlengiwe Magagula

Image 1: Dawn Jorgensen

Image 2: Olivia Lezard Dummer

Image 3: Libby Edwards

Image 4: Clive Thompson

Feature Image: Morgan Trimble