When looking for animals on safari, there are three ways to find them: you happen upon them along the road by chance; someone else finds them and you respond to the sighting; or you track them down by looking at signs they’ve left behind. The most rewarding, in my opinion, is the last way – to track them.
Tracking is a very specialised art that dates back to the early history of our species. It was the difference between life and death – if you didn’t find food, you didn’t eat – so a vital skill passed down from father to son, generation after generation. But what has taken thousands of years to master and disseminate is, worryingly, soon to be lost. In Africa, as urbanisation and development spreads, the continent’s traditional trackers are decreasing in number.
So what does tracking entail?
Tracking is following the trail and movements of something to find it. Trackers must be able to recognise and pursue animals by their ‘spoor’. Spoor may include tracks, scat, feathers, kills, scratching posts, trails, drag marks, sounds, scents, marking posts, the behaviour of other animals, habitat cues, and any other clues about the identity and whereabouts of the quarry.
The skilled tracker is able to discern these clues, recreate what transpired on the landscape, and make predictions about the quarry. Some have said it is the earliest of all sciences, because it revolves around asking questions: Is the track fresh? Which animal made it? What was it doing? Just like developing a research question and investigating to answer it.
Tracking is one of my biggest passions because it tells a story – an account detailing what happened before we got to a particular place in time. It is a story that needs to be read and interpreted – the ability to do so is unique. It is a lifelong journey of discovery and continual learning to understand and apply this science. Even the best trackers in the world are still learning.
Tracking can also feel like meditation as it requires you to be absolutely in the moment, with your mind clear of any distractions and focused on the task at hand. You’re out on foot in the habitat of potentially dangerous animals; you need to be present and alert. And then there’s little that could beat the feeling of finding an animal you’ve been looking for and getting to show guests the animal they’re also so eager to see!
I remember one tracking experience well. I was leading a guest group on foot following black rhino. While it can be a dangerous species to track, the conditions were right to do so safely – with the wind blowing in our favour, the area being in open vegetation, and plenty of quick-exit routes – so we proceeded… We walked in silence, and taking photos was discouraged as any sounds can draw the attention of the rhino. The objective was to see them and move out without being seen.
We followed their tracks and early on started seeing signs of feeding: the 45° cut on some low lying bushes; the branches still very green and wet – indicating they had browsed here within the past few hours. We continued on, and then saw some dung on a midden – the territorial marking place for rhino. The dung was steaming and dung beetles were just getting to it. We were close! Time to slow down and look very carefully…
Then, finally, there they were: in the shade of an umbrella thorn tree, in the open. We found a spot with enough cover and were able to sit down and observe them for a while. There was no talking; we heard only the sound of the wind and birds calling. It was a perfect situation to watch them without them knowing we were there. We stayed for 30 minutes, before leaving them in peace – none the wiser to our presence.
Words by: Luke Abbot
Photos by: Charlotte Arthun