Pre­serv­ing the an­cient art of track­ing

ASouthAfrican­wildlife­track­er­a­cade­myaim­stoem­power,writesJon­va­n­denHeever

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - PROPERTY -

THE in­vi­ta­tion by my son, Alex, to visit the only wildlife tracker academy i n South Africa at Sa­mara Pri­vate Game re­serve near Graaff-Reinet was ir­re­sistible. We had heard the step-by-step progress over the months and I had vis­ited Sa­mara for part of a travel story be­fore the academy’s first stu­dents ar­rived. Ev­ery­thing was now in place and it was time to go see for our­selves.

Lessons start early at the SA Col­lege for Tourism Tracker Academy and, when my wife and I ar­rived to join a track­ing ses­sion, one of the stu­dents, Robert Hlatswayo, was wait­ing to guide us to the tracker group which had al­ready gone into the bush. Neatly turned out in the academy uni­form, Robert was clearly a mo­ti­vated young man, keen to show us how it’s done. Alex and res­i­dent trainer Pokkie Be­nadie were su­per­vis­ing the group of four – out of an in­take of eight – as they set out to track a rhino fe­male and her calf.

Pokkie is a mod­est, in­stantly like­able man with a firm hand­shake and a ready smile. He is a na­tive of the Ka­roo, the prod­uct of more than 30 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence at the Ka­roo Na­tional Park and a cer­ti­fied mas­ter tracker. He started out by look­ing af­ter his fa­ther’s sheep and trap­ping jackal and cara­cal which threat­ened them. By age 16 he was able to iden­tify the tracks of all the lo­cal wild an­i­mals and fol­low them through the bush.

With Alex and Re­nias Mhlongo, both vet­er­ans of Lon­dolozi Pri­vate Game Re­serve in the Lowveld, and both s enior t r ack­ers, Pokkie makes up the team of train­ers who are pas­sion­ate about im­part­ing the tech­niques and ethos of pro­fes­sional track­ing.

Like Pokkie, Re­nias grew up tend­ing his fa­ther’s cat­tle in the Lowveld and the re­spon­si­bil­ity was great. His fa­ther was a tra­di­tional man who was jeal­ous of his herd and sternly in­tol­er­ant of any dere­lic­tion of duty. So, when cows went missing in the veld, there was only one way of deal­ing with the prob­lem – track­ing them.

Alex and Re­nias started out as a ranger-andt r a c k e r t e a m a t L on­dolozi , t a k i ng mostly wealthy over­seas guests on game drives and in­tro­duc­ing them to the African bush. Early on, when Alex was still a rookie, they were look­ing for tracks in a dry riverbed when Alex was charged and knocked down by a l eop­ard fe­male which had a cub nearby.

Re­nias kept his cool and saved Alex’s life by qui­etly giv­ing him the right in­struc­tions as the leopard stood men­ac­ingly near, with Alex’s ri­fle flung out of reach. It was a piv­otal moment for Alex and the two have been close friends ever since.

They have trav­elled over­seas to­gether, to London for ex­am­ple – Re­nias the vil­lage boy’s bap­tism of fire into the Western world – and to train Amer­i­can track­ers to fol­low bears and other wildlife in Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park in the US. They also of­fer a mo­ti­va­tional talk to­gether called based on their mu­tual ex­pe­ri­ences.

Pokkie, Re­nias and Alex re­ceived tracker cert i f i cation f r om Louis Li eben­berg, who has played a ma­jor role in re-ig­nit­ing the an­cient art of track­ing in South Africa. He is the author of the sem­i­nal book, and is the only known per­son to be work­ing with indi­gen o u s p e o p l e o n d o c u ment i n g t h i s d e e p knowl­edge of the wilder­ness.

The academy was made pos­si­ble through fund­ing by the Ru­pert Na­ture Foun­da­tion and Sa­mara Game Re­serve, which do­nated the academy build­ing and pro­vided the use of 28 000ha of largely re­ha­bil­i­tated Ka­roo veld. It is a part­ner­ship be­tween the SA Col­lege for Tourism, Sa­mara Pri­vate Game Re­serve, Lon­dolozi Pri­vate Game Re­serve and Alex van den Heever.

The con­cept had i ts ori­gin i n a meet­ing be­tween Gaynor Ru­pert and Alex, and her pos­i­tive re­sponse to his de­sire for a place of learn­ing for as­pi­rant track­ers. Ru­pert ar­ranged for the Tracker Academy to be­come a di­vi­sion of the SA Col­lege for Tourism in Graaff Reinet, of which she is chair­per­son, where 90 un­em­ployed women from i mpov­er­ished back­grounds are trained an­nu­ally in hos­pi­tal­ity op­er­a­tions and ser­vices un­der the aus­pices of the Peace Parks Foun­da­tion.

The academy is set to grow un­der Ru­pert’s stew­ard­ship. She in­tends to in­crease stu­dent num­bers by invit­ing women to join the ranks of the tracker com­mu­nity-in-mak­ing. With this in mind, she has had dis­cus­sions with SANParks about ad­di­tional train­ing fa­cil­i­ties in the Camde­boo Na­tional Park at Graaff-Reinet.

Cape Town psy­chi­a­trist and author Dr Ian McCal­lum has played an in­te­gral role in the devel­op­ment of the cur­ricu­lum. His ex­pe­ri­ence in psy­chi­a­try and his un­der­stand­ing of “eco­log­i­cal in­tel­li­gence” have added a fur­ther di­men­sion to the course, which also teaches life skills and lit­er­acy.

Says Alex: “We want to con­trib­ute as much as we can to the preser­va­tion of in­dige­nous knowl­edge in South Africa by cre­at­ing pas­siona t e A f r i c a n n a t u r a l i s t s . P e r s o n a l l y, I a m mo­ti­vated by a life­long love of the bush and want­ing to teach these skills to poor peo­ple who show ap­ti­tude.”

Af t e r s pendi ng t he f i r s t s i x months a t Sa­mara, the groups of stu­dents move to Lon­dolozi where they com­plete a year’s train­ing with Re­nias.

Train­ing is based on the na­tion­ally recog­nised Cy­ber­tracker train­ing and eval­u­a­tion sys­tem and suc­cess­ful stu­dents re­ceive a Field Guide As­so­ci­a­tion of South Africa (FGASA)-recog­nised cer­tifi­cate. Train­ing and eval­u­a­tion is to track­ing lev­els 1, 2 and 3. The course of­fers other na­ture-and track­ing-re­lated topics such as hunter-gath­er­ing abil­i­ties, nestfind­ing, life skills and first aid, among oth­ers. S t udents a l s o a t t e nd a Wil d L e a der s pr ogramme, which is a crit­i­cal el­e­ment of the course and fo­cuses on lead­er­ship skills, based on McCal­lum’s “track­ing and anal­y­sis”.

While walk­ing in the veld with this group of stu­dents, we soon saw the en­thu­si­asm and will­ing­ness to learn. With his neat mil­i­tary-green out­fit and stick ( which they all carry when track­ing), Pokkie re­minded me of an army in­struc­tor. But that is cer­tainly not his style. The neatly rolled up sleep­ing bags and tow­els in the dor­mi­to­ries do in­di­cate dis­ci­pline, but these young men are taught to think for them­selves. When track­ing a dan­ger­ous an­i­mal in thick bush, for ex­am­ple, they have to make up their own minds whether t o pro­ceed. They are en­cour­aged to “give them­selves per­mis­sion” to pro­ceed.

Each of the four – Nathan, Robert, Tu­tani and Clear­ance – took turns in lead­ing the group as they tracked the rhino and calf. There were some tell-tale signs of the an­i­mals’ pas­sage, like fresh dung, but pick­ing up and fol­low­ing the tracks – to the un­trained eye sim­ply semi-dis­tin­guish­able smudges in the soil – is a de­mand­ing ac­tiv­ity re­quir­ing close at­ten­tion, stealth, si­lence main­tained with hand sig­nals, and con­stant vig­i­lance. There were signs of ap­pre­hen­sion as each in­di­vid­ual took the lead, but wit­ness­ing the stu­dents’ ded­i­ca­tion to the task was heart-warm­ing.

We made our way over open ground and even­tu­ally to a largely dried-up dam where the signs showed that the an­i­mals had been to drink and then left. We con­tin­ued the pur­suit – stop­ping along the way to iden­tify bird­calls – through a dry riverbed and into some thick bush. I could tell by the breeze on my un­usu­ally bare legs that we were up­wind of the mother and calf (a tip picked up from the bit of train­ing re­ceived) and, sure enough, there was a sud­den crash­ing noise of big an­i­mals in the bush ahead of us.

We couldn’t see them, but they were well aware of our pres­ence and made off again. Keep­ing this up re­quires some en­ergy since while large and ap­par­ently cum­ber­some an­i­mals, rhino are nim­ble on their feet.

Af­ter about three hours, and op­por­tu­ni­ties to view other an­i­mals, in­clud­ing some beau­ti­ful eland, the big moment came. With Tu­tani lead­ing the group, the two rhino crossed our view. We had found them, and the game was up.

Back at the academy we could re­lax with all the stu­dents, the other half of whom had been watch­ing wildlife DVDs un­der the su­per­vi­sion of Janetta, Pokkie’s wife. She is de­lighted to be play­ing an ac­tive role at the academy, pro­vid­ing meals and gen­eral “house­mother” sup­port for the stu­dents, as well as con­duct­ing some of the lessons.

Pokkie is also in­tensely sat­is­fied with the way things have de­vel­oped: “It has al­ways been my dream t o t each t hese s ki l l s , and I am ver y pleased to be here. You learn a lot by teach­ing oth­ers, which gives you ex­tra con­fi­dence.”

Alex had the last word: “Our aim is to em­power the cus­to­di­ans of Africa’s wilder­ness to pre­serve the con­ti­nent’s last re­main­ing wild ar­eas. Our in­ten­tion is that our grad­u­ates will bring au­then­tic­ity and ac­cu­racy to en­vi­ron­men­tal ed­u­ca­tion, anti-poach­ing, eco-tourism, data col­lec­tion and con­ser­va­tion, all of which hold the prom­ise of gain­ful em­ploy­ment for these young peo­ple.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.