The Art and Science of Tracking


Apr 2 2015

Tracking started hundreds of years ago, before modern man. It was an integral part of survival!

Thousands of years ago hunter-gatherers used tracking techniques for survival. That is they hunted for food. Tracking has certainly evolved from survival of physically observing and following wildlife to a technology based entertainment field. Of course the theory behind and the skill attached to implementing these theories will always remain… anyone can be a tracker but not everyone will be a master tracker.

Louis Liebenberg, author and honorary member of Harvard says, “The ability of Kalahari hunter-gatherers to interpret spoor is cultivated over a lifetime and developed to an exceptionally high degree. For example, men and women are able to identify the footprints of an individual person.”  An expert tracker is able to discern clues, reinvent what transpired on the landscape, and make predictions about the prey.

Juan Pinto, Director of FGASA (Field Guides Association of Southern Africa), agrees that there is more to tracking than recognizing spoor. Tracking is the deeper understanding of the systems and patterns that make up the environment surrounding and incorporating the tracker. Animal behaviour and the environment play a pivotal role in tracking. He says the two fundamental principals to tracking are, “Identifying any track or sign such as spoor, a hair or even a dropping. This is followed by trailing to ultimately find the animal.”

In order to identify signs, a tracker often has a defined image of what a typical sign looks like, and without this preconceived idea signs may be overlooked.

Can tracks reveal information about an animal’s physiology or behaviour? “Undeniably their behaviour”, says Juan. One cannot assume from a leopard track that she is pregnant. However if you follow her trail from den site to den sight one can assume that she is investigating these dens because she is pregnant, and is looking for a suitable place to give birth. These signs and hypotheses can later be confirmed when we see her with her young.

Tracking wildlife in the bush is an ongoing problem-solving puzzle. It is also interesting that the timing of an animal can be determined by spoor. Take the following scenario: it can be assumed that a leopard was in the area in the early morning if the leopard’s spoor is above a serval’s (nocturnal wild cat) spoor.

Some other signs to pay heed to when in the bush: when it is dry go to a water-hole, when it is extremely wet cats like to walk on the road.  The conduct of birds and specifically their alarm cries is of practical value as an indicator of situations that are important to hunters.

“Different species can be identified by variations that are characteristic of a particular species. Understanding characteristic features of spoor enables the tracker to analyse fractional or partly obliterated spoor which may otherwise be difficult to identify and interpret. Functional adaptations of feet may be for specific types of locomotion – feet adapted for speed will have only a small area in contact with the ground”, says Liebenberg.

Therefore where ever you are look for signs, even if it is flattened grass! It is evident that In order to be a good tracker you need to understand the relationship of the spoor of the animals and how they relate to the environment. And finally don’t look at the bush, but rather through it. Trackers need to vary their vision in order to see new things.

Pics by Juan Pinto

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