It’s All In The Bush Telegraph
A tracking course in Limpopo shows SUE ADAMS how to read the signs
Get tracking and learn how to read the signs COVER STORY
“There’s not much difference between learning to track and learning to read,” says Colin Patrick, a senior tracker and trainer of trackers. The group I am with has come to learn tracking from one of the best in the country. We are standing on the edge of a waterhole one early morning in the dusty Limpopo bushveld with a Fish Eagle calling and a zebra yipping.
“First you learn the basics, like you learn the letters of the alphabet. From that the words and the story grow. Tracking is all about the story and the big picture,” says Colin. We crouch to look at the track Colin has circled in the mud. We all know it’s a bird, but which one?
“It’s a Saddle-billed Stork,” Colin announces and goes on to explain, “Big picture, big picture that’s what it’s all about. As we came up to the dam I saw the stork fly off. That is what I mean by big picture. You were so focused on the little track in the mud, you didn’t think further. But this course is about tracks and signs. You need to see the whole story.”
Colin shares with us some of his knowledge from more than 20 years of tracking. The fact that this bird has a claw at the back means it can hold onto the tree it roosts in at night. A heron track would be thinner and more needle-like. We look at another bird track and think it’s the right size for a guineafowl, with no back claw. After all, they are ground birds aren’t they? But Colin points out they roost in trees at night. This is not as easy as it seems.
The course we are doing in Limpopo is called Track and Sign, at Moholoholo Game Reserve outside Hoedspruit, and we soon realise it does not entail just looking at spoor prints in the dust. We need to look for signs of feeding, feathers, hair, territorial markings, droppings, horns and skeletons. And then there are the sounds and smells. For example, for a tracker it’s vital to listen to alarm calls from birds as they are linked to predator movement. Oxpeckers calling usually means a big animal like a rhino or a buffalo is around.
I have always been impressed by trackers – watching them sit in the front of game vehicles and announce that a leopard passed by about two hours ago. When I look I can’t see a thing except strange marks and tyre tracks in the dust. “It’s just lots of practice and hard work,” says Colin. He points out that, as in the city, in the bush there are 'road signs' everywhere. You just have to be able to read them.
Alex van den Heever, who co-founded the
Tracker Academy, says, “There's huge skill and practice involved in tracking. Take Sylvester the Lion that escaped from the Karoo National Park in 2016, and what it took master tracker Karel 'Pokkie' Benadie to track and find him him – four days over 40 kilometres of rocky terrain. It all boils down to old school boots on the ground and highly skilled people.”
Alex worked at Londolozi Game Reserve in Sabi Sands with Renias Mhlongo, who had learned tracking from his father. The pair has always been concerned that ancient wildlife-tracking skills would be lost to future generations. In 2010, Gaynor Rupert, wife of South African business magnate Johann Rupert, founded the Tracker Academy with Alex, and Renias and Pokkie are central to the day-to-day training efforts. The Tracker Academy is a training division of the SA College for Tourism, that is chaired by Gaynor, and operates under the Peace Parks Foundation.
The year-long course is aimed at training
professional trackers who want a career in conservation. “And yes, some people are better at it than others,” says Alex. “It’s a bit like playing cricket. Anyone can play the game, but not everyone will get to be a Protea.” If tracking is like learning the game of cricket then I feel I can hardly throw the ball.
However, Colin is a superb and patient teacher.
I'm happy when I start to differentiate between warthog and impala tracks, and to be able to easily explain exactly what I'm seeing. We wander through the bush noting a broken spiderweb, a bent blade of grass and a wet patch in the dust. It's giraffe urine, which has a very distinct smell and we get down low to sniff it. Annie, Colin’s Belgian Malinois that he uses for tracking, thinks this is a great game and joins in. “She's a vital part of our tracking team,” says Colin with a laugh.
We stop to examine a track with pads and claws. A leopard or a wild dog? Alone or in a pack? There is much discussion and confusion, and we feel extremely foolish when Colin bursts out laughing and points to Annie. We've wandered in a circle and come back to some of Annie’s tracks.
Norman Chauke has tracked all his life.
As a young boy in the Makuleke area on the edge of Kruger National Park, he was a herder looking after his family’s cattle. “I would take the cattle out to graze and then go to school. After school I had to go and round up all the cattle. This was when I honed my tracking skills. There were consequences if I didn’t bring all the cattle home, so naturally I became diligent.”
When Alex van den Heever offered Norman
a year’s course at the Tracker Academy, he jumped at it and went on to become one of the youngest fully qualified trackers at the age of 19. Now, at the age of 26, he is a fully qualified tracker assessor and trails guide, and works at EcoTraining Guides and Guardians, near where he grew up running courses for field guides and trackers.
As young boys Norman and his friends used to hunt small game and gather food from the bushveld. “We didn’t have a fridge or a rifle or a supermarket, so we became hunter gatherers,” he says. He learned how to hunt, make traps and identify plants that were safe to eat. “We had to keep our eyes open and notice everything,” he says. “I love passing on my knowledge and want to be an ambassador for my African people.”
My fellow tracking students are here for all sorts of reasons. Some need it as a qualification to work in field guiding and others, like me, are simply enjoying experiencing the bush in a different way.
“There are many applications for tracking,” says Alex. “In the Sabi Sands leopards were habituated by trackers so that guests could get better sightings.” This led to interest from across the world and Alex has sent training teams to as far afield as the Pantanal in Brazil, to help habituate jaguars. “Tourism brings money to remote places that would never otherwise get funding, and it’s important for tourists to have outstanding sightings.”
But tracking also is useful to scientific research and data collection. “It's a reliable method for monitoring animals and their movements and contributes to how we conserve species,” says Alex. “If we know where they are, thanks to properly trained trackers, we can study and look after them.
Of course, when it comes to poaching, there's the dangerous side to tracking, as Colin Patrick from Moholoholo can testify to. “This is where we see the value of a dog like Annie, with her extraordinary sense of smell and ability to track at night,” he says.
But tracking is about so much more than the danger and following the Big Five. For me it's the dimension it adds to being in the bush, by creating a bigger picture. Crouching over a small pawprint in the mud keeps me in the moment. Birds are calling, grass waves in the breeze, and the scent of animal dung is strong as I try to read the story that this African bushveld is telling me.
CLOCKWISE FROM OPPOSITE: "Sure, it's exciting to be able to track and walk up to the Big Five, but for most trackers it's more about the big picture," says Colin Patrick. (Photo EcoTraning) An unusually smooth● rock indicates that an animal (probably a rhino) uses it regularly for a good rub. Colin with what● could be jackal, wild dog or even leopard tracks – difficult to identify if they aren't clear. A scrub hare● has rested here. Renias Mhlongo, ● George Nkuna, Pokkie Benadie and Alex van den Heever have spent more hours than you can imagine tracking. (Photo Ian Thomas)There is much discussion and● sharing of ideas on a tracking course.
ABOVE: Moholoholo Game Reserve in Limpopo is set against a backdrop of the Blyde River mountains.LEFT: It's easy to get distracted by the tracks on the ground, but look up and you might find the animal there.
TOP: Norman Chauke of EcoTraining is a patient and passionate teacher. (Photo EcoTraining) ABOVE: Colin Patrick’s dog Annie is an essential part of his tracking team for anti-poaching. BELOW: A trainee looks for signs of territorial markings. (Photo Ian Thomas)
ABOVE: It's obvious from the browse line of the trees that giraffe occur in this bushveld. ABOVE RIGHT: Renias Mhlongo from Tracker Academy teaches a year-long course to students. (Photo Alex van den Heever) BELOW RIGHT: It’s always good to have something like a coin as a reference for the size of the track when taking photos.
ABOVE: Norman Chauke believes tracking can be taught at any age, and makes the bush so much more interesting. BELOW: Habituating leopards by tracking them has made it easier for tourists to see them.