It’s All In The Bush Tele­graph

A track­ing course in Lim­popo shows SUE ADAMS how to read the signs

South African Country Life - - In This Issue - WORDS SUE ADAMS PIC­TURES SUE ADAMS AND SUP­PLIED

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.

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