Tracks and Tracking. A Tribute!

Aug 25 2015

Ian Lombard, winner of the Safari Guide of the Year Awards 2015 (an African Direct initiative) shares some tracking insight with Latest Sightings...

Finding animal tracks, unravelling their secrets as you follow them, and eventually finding the animal is an exhilarating experience. Nothing gets my blood pumping more than the excitement of tracks progressively getting fresher, and knowing that it could be around the next bend. Tracks and signs allow us to view an animal’s behavior, and get a glimpse into its life without actually seeing the animal, but literally walking in its footsteps. By just following it's tracks, one is left with with an intimate and enriched experience of that animal.

Most animals leave behind signs of their activities. Where an elephant has stripped the bark on a tree, or where a wasp has collected mud for its nest. Tracks of a pride of lions hunting along a riverbed, or where a sandpiper was probing for food on a mud bank. Tracks and signs of animals gets us to our knees where we truly appreciate the smaller things. It forces us to use all our senses. To feel for moisture on stripped bark, or to smell and test the freshness of dung. To listen for branches breaking, or for alarm calls. By looking at nature through a magnifying glass we get an insight into the lives of the unseen.

Tracking is, however one of the most complex parts of a guided experience. Firstly, the tracker needs to find and identify the tracks of the animal that you are searching for.  Identifying a track is most often a process of elimination. Start simple and then work towards the intricacies of the tracks at your feet. Always questioning: big or small, hoof or pad? Simple questions will point the tracker into the right direction. It might be one sign that draws your attention, but the animal is bound to leave behind more clues in close proximity. A good idea is to investigate around before drawing a conclusion.
Once the track has been identified, the tracker then needs to calculate whether the tracks are fresh and worth following. The clarity of a track is determined by various different factors: weather, substrate, time of day, and by how the animal was moving (to name only a few). Often making an imprint of your own next to the track and comparing it, gives you an idea of how clear the outlines of a track are and therefore how fresh it is. Only then, after this process can the tracker actually start the search for an animal by following the tracks and signs through its natural habitat.

This ‘following’ part of the tracking experience is known as trailing. Nothing in my career has tested my patience more. In a world where everything comes quickly and life is fairly predictable, trailing teaches you skills in patience and focus that aren’t taught in a classroom, or a text book. The most common mistake made by the novice tracker is to try and predict movement and walk in line with that movement, hoping to cut across the tracks. Any experienced tracker, however, will tell you to stick to the last track that you have and slowly work toward the next sign. It might not necessarily be a track; it could be a bruised bit of vegetation or a pebble that has been moved out of place. To truly focus on that sign and understand it before moving on.  Take time to take in all the information that the animal has left you. During the trailing of an animal, as in life, there will be easy sections where your pace will pick up and harder sections where the going will be slow. As a good friend and mentor once said: “Slower tracking, faster finding.”

Any tracker will tell you that experience and practice are key to clearly seeing tracks, where to a novice, there is none. To be a skillful professional tracker is something that takes years of curiously questioning little anomalies in the bush around you. For someone that still considers himself a beginner, there are few stories that enthrall me more, than the legends of trackers and their incredible skills. Most of these legendary trackers grew up in some of the wildest places, tending to cattle in the bush and tracking for as long as they can remember. Unfortunately these areas are often some of the poorest parts of the country and they have little or no education. Without tracking and game reserves these artists would be forced to work elsewhere. They’d be forced to work as unskilled men in far flung places to provide for their families. Yet they are masters of a skill that requires experience, skill, focus, curiosity, nerves of steel and a deep knowledge of nature. They are the keepers of an art form that was once a way of life for the hunter gatherers of the African savanna.

One such keeper was Wilson Masiya, one of only eight master trackers in the world. Unfortunately Wilson passed away last month. His mentorship and legacy has however ensured that this sacred art is passed on to the next generation of trackers. Here is to Wilson and the keepers. True artists and legends in their own right.

Photo by Dave and Niaomi Estment from Outdoor Video and Photographic




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Ian Lombard started his guiding career after realizing that reading books about history and the natural world, rather than financial publications, was not conducive to becoming a very good investment banker. He subsequently joined andBeyond as a guide a month after graduating in 2010. After working stints in Madikwe and Kwandwe reserves he now finds himself as an assistant head ranger at Phinda Private Game Reserve in Maputaland in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal. The differences between the Kalahari bushveld, Karoo scrubland and immense diversity of Zululand have sparked a wide range of interests from nesting turtles to endemic birds.

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