The art of tracking

Kruger National Park | August 2019

A vital part of the safari experience is the guide and tracker team responsible for taking guests out on safari. Many guests are enthralled when out of the corner of the tracker’s eye, a seemingly insignificant smudge is detected on the soils. With a flick of the hand the vehicle grinds to a halt, and the tracker climbs off to inspect. “Lions walked here, and the tracks are fresh…” To the untrained eye it takes a while to see the pug marks, some of which might be partial imprints that the tracker is inspecting. “These lions were hunting… 3 males and several lionesses.” How does he do that? It’s all due to the Art of Tracking.

Tracking is not a mystical and mythical skill, but in actual fact it is something each one of us does on a daily basis. Yes, one might not necessarily look at lion footprints in New York, but you might be tracking your budget, or your weight loss, or when your next holiday to Singita will be. We all track, it’s just the ‘language’ that differs.

Tracking consists of two components: Tracks and Signs, and Trailing:
Tracks and signs refer to looking at the signs left behind by animals and birds, whether footprints, signs of feeding, scratches on trees, scat and dung or feathers and fur left behind. This is the basic foundations of tracking, and is helps us determine which animal was around and what it was doing. Trailing on the other hand refers to following the footprint of the animal until you find it.

There are certain key elements to consider when looking at tracks and signs, and it can be compared to reading a book: First of all, you can’t read a book upside down, and the same applies to track identification. One needs to determine which direction the animal is moving into. Secondly, one cannot read a book without sufficient light. In this case, it is advisable to ‘place’ the track between yourself and the sunlight, as the shadows cast will help to bring out the finer details in the print. At times however, especially during midday, the sun casts too much light on the track, and then one might want to deliberately cast a shadow over the track. Thirdly, one needs to analyse the tracks. This is where you look at the actual ABCs in order to make up a word. Is the track made by a cloven hooved animal, was it an animal with padded feet? Are there toenails present, what is the size and general shape? All of these elements are then taken into account, before the final element of “Looking at the Bigger Picture” can be implemented. When reading a book, it makes no sense to read one paragraph on one page, and then read another paragraph in a different chapter. If that is done, the full story will never be understood. It’s also vital, that one does not assume one knows where the author is taking the storyline, and the same can be applied to tracking – never place preconceived notions on the animal that left the track.

Trailing is the fun part of tracking, and that is where one then follows the footprints of the animal. It is important not just to look at the tracks closest to you, but to scan as far ahead as possible. This will enable the tracker to scan for potential danger of other animals that might be in the area. Listening to calls of other animals, whether soft chirping of birds or alarming of monkeys will also play a role.

When all of these elements are joined, guests can embark on a magical journey alongside guide and tracker, as they follow and interpret the comings and goings of animals, and tell the stories of what a creature was doing, all from pug marks in the sand.