Tracker Academy Blog
We head out with Bright (one of our trainers at Tracker Academy) in a Land Rover. Scanning for tracks we were going pick up Renias Mhlongo (one of South Africa’s renowned trackers and a trainer at the academy). En route, a leopard leaps out of a bush and seizes an impala from its herd, literally fifteen feet away from our vehicle. By the time we realise what just happened, the leopard (a female) had successfully killed and dragged the impala to the base of a tree. Bright, also stunned with the suddenness of the sighting drives us into the thicket to try and get a closer view of the leopard. In the middle of all this, two hyenas stroll by, possibly attracted by the commotion the impalas created as they witnessed one of their herd snatched by the subtle predator. Relying on their highly acute sense of smell, the hyenas manage to locate immediately the trench in which the carcass and leopard lay under the shade of an acacia. As soon as the leopard hears the hyenas approaching, she bolts, disappearing into the bush and leaving her hard-earned food behind. Within seconds the two hyenas had mangled the impala and erratically tore off its lifeless limbs in a savage frenzy. I will not and cannot for all of our sakes describe the sound of the joints popping out of their sockets or the crack of the bones as they manically devoured the corpse. They laughed in their characteristic way as they competed for the last ounce of flesh and after a mere 20 minutes, the impala was gone.
This sudden spectacle kicked off our first day of five with the Tracker Academy at Londolozi. As you continue to read, tracking an animal, an art that takes years to master, is about as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack.
In 2010 Tracker Academy was co-founded by Alex Van den Heever with great support from Mrs. Gaynor Rupert (Chairperson of SACT). A non-profit organisation, the Tracker Academy is a training division of the South African College of Tourism (SACT) and boasts to be the first fully accredited tracker training school in South Africa. The academy recruits candidates from rural villages situated close to wildlife areas in southern Africa. The Academy runs a rigorous 12-month programme where students are taught by top trackers in the country. Within these twelve months they participate in courses such as: ‘Track and Sign’ identifications, Plant and Tree identification, Tracking & Guiding Theory, and rifle handling to name a few. Upon graduation most become a part of the facilitating world of the ecotourism industry or a part of animal-monitoring organisations, and sometimes as anti-poaching units.
William and I join the tracker academy students while they are on the last week of their training by the end of which they will participate in their final assessments.
After meeting Renias in the middle of the bush, a student from the academy sits in the ‘tracker’s office’, a seat which is positioned at the front of the vehicle so that they are better able to look for any tracks or signs imprinted on the road ahead. After driving for about 15 minutes, the student spots tracks of a lion. We get off the jeep and Renias confirms that the tracks are from earlier that morning. Every day there is one student who becomes a lead tracker and this morning is Adolf’s turn. Before we head off on our first expedition, he gives a mandatory debrief to us all which includes information about:
- The animal that we are tracking- the way they move and the senses they can use to locate us.
- The tracks, their freshness and possibly what the animal was doing here.
- The wind direction and how this direction can affect our tracking of the specific species.
- No verbal communications will be made, but by various hand signals and gestures we will recognise what we are meant to do.
- The lead tracker also explains that if the animal we are tracking is located and suddenly the animal starts moving towards us, we should stay calm, stand still and look at the tracker, he will let us know what to do.
Excited to walk in the African bush for the first time and further aware of the danger this possesses, we slowly start following the tracks. As we meander the roads, Renias explains the immense focus and awareness of the surroundings we need to have while tracking, that every detail of our surroundings can play a factor in tracking: a broken branch, a kicked stone, the particular direction of the tracks, the way the animal has walked (was it stalking, running or just walking normally?), the way the grass is bent as the animal walks through, the fresh smell of the scent markings, signs of territorial marking, or any particular bird alarmed are only just some of the clues that nature presents. In short we need to think like the animal. Believe me when I say that having done this for over 6 years, it is not an easy task to put all of these clues together and make sense of the signs we observe. This was Will’s first day on the job…but reassuringly, Renias sticks to his opinion that the skills of tracking can never be mastered. Each time nature has its own ways of teaching us something new while out tracking and observing various animals.
We continue following the lion tracks for about fifty minutes. Renias then mentions that he has received reports of two new male lions coming into the vicinity who had vocalised throughout the night before, hence the lion we were tracking had moved around the bush quickly, possibly to avoid conflict with the new male lions. In light of this, we stopped for breakfast and concluded our morning tracking.
As it is the students’ last week before assessment, it is their decision what to do. That afternoon we went out looking for small animal tracks. We pulled up to a road that is littered with tracks of some sort. While we waited along with the students in the vehicle, Renias and Bright would go ahead on foot and circle various tracks and one by one we observed the tracks and gave our inputs based on our observations. Whether we were right or wrong, Renias would then explain the track in detail. Will was thrown in the deep-end inspecting the difference between the print of a white-tailed mongoose and a genet, zigzag footprint of a dove to the red-billed ox pecker. However by the end of the week he had certainly made leaps of improvement by being able to differentiate all the above and much more including the light tracks of a button quail, or how nyala’s register (where their hind legs step exactly where their front legs step), while kudu or impala do not.
Everyday we continued tracking various mammals: rhinos, lions, leopards, wild dogs and even birds, but there are a few experiences I would like to mention, in particular:
On our second day, we were tracking a male leopard known as the Anderson Male. His tracks were instantly recognised by an obvious small protrusion in one of the pugmarks, the result of a scar attained on his right pad during a territorial fight with another male leopard. We followed his pugmarks over a couple of crests that came onto a road and led us into a drainage line. At this point, we decided to split into three groups to cover the two sides of the drainage and the streambed. Sadly the drainage led us not to the Anderson Male, but a skeleton of an eaten Rhino carcass.
Another experience that particularly resonates as I look back on the week is when we were towards the Southern end of Londolozi, we came across tracks of a snake crossing the road. Although we could not identify the species of the snake, Bright asked Will and me to ascertain which direction the snake went. Using my past experience observing different species of snakes in India, I answered with confidence that the snake has moved from North to South. Will and Bright did not agree which led me into explaining the reasons I thought the snake has moved into that particular direction. Getting the students involved in the discussion led us into a huge debate that continued for about 20 minutes. Four of the students supported me while the rest were on Bright’s side. After a complete stalemate, we came to a conclusion that the snake has moved from here and has left us with a track, which leads in some direction. Agreeing, we moved on. Just another 40 yards and we find another track of a snake across the road. Staring at each other we just burst out laughing and decided to let the matter rest and began unpacking our breakfast.
The final experience I wish to mention occured while we were looking at small mammal and bird tracks. We were examining each other, as we would circle our own findings for the rest of the group to answer. However the walk soon became more relaxed as fresh tyre marks buried the tracks with the students pulling pranks on each other and Will using a stump of a dead tree on the side of the road as target practice while claiming his bulls-eye accuracy would predetermine a victory for England over South Africa in the ODI series. It was then decided that we should get into the Land Rover and find some new big mammal pugmarks. Bright turns on the engine and exactly 50 metres down the track, a pack of fourteen howling wild dogs came running out of the bush, directly in front of our jeep. This hair-raising, spine-tingling experience made us think, had we in fact decided to walk on instead, we would have bumped into the pack on foot! A sighting like this is incredibly rare and so with beaming faces, we observed the pack interact with each other: the sub-adults kept squeaking which soon caused its mother to regurgitate some meat…was there a kill nearby? The next morning, fresh and excited to see our friends from last night again, we began tracking for the wild dogs to see if we could locate them or their kill. It was hugely difficult following the tracks of the wild dogs, as their paw prints were everywhere; we had no idea which direction they were heading! There were tracks heading north, south, east and west. As Walter (the student who was lead tracker that day) courageously and diligently followed and the tracks we thought we were getting close. But alas we did not have the same fortune in seeing these wonderful creatures as we did the night before.
This whole week has been an eye-opener for the both of us. None of the prints we tracked this week ended with a sighting, but that is not to say that it wasn’t in any way unfruitful. The concentration and skillset needed to track is by no means easy to acquire and we take our caps off to the trackers at Londolozi who, twice a day, sit at their ‘office’ and deliver a truly flawless performance of this rare form of art. The time we have spent at Londolozi with the Tracker Academy has been truly inspirational and motivational. Lots of things to do and lots of things to learn! I would like to wrap up with the words of the legendary conservationist, Jim Corbett: “The book of nature has no beginning, as it has no end. Open this book where you will, and at any period of your life, and if you have the desire to acquire knowledge you will find it of intense interest, and no matter how long or how intently you study the pages, your interest will not flag, for in nature there is no finality.”