Tracking in South Africa

In this blog post I am going to talk about some of the things I’ve learnt during the Gameranger Experience and Cybertracker Training and Assessment Course, which I returned from South Africa back in March. This was a two-week course that 9 others and I completed, led by Colin Patrick, one of South Africa’s top trackers.

Colin teaching tracking Image: Ben Atton

When I arrived in South Africa, I would be amongst the first to admit that I knew little about the vast amount of wildlife we could expect to see. After two weeks of studying, we were able to recognize tracks and signs of up to 50 species of animals; covering mammals birds and insects. We were even able to distinguish between very similar species, weather that be one of the many antelope or the difference between the 5 types of mongooses.

A hippo heading towards the lake Image: Ben Atton

We were told, the art of tracking and trailing is like reading a book, the signs left by the animals building up to form a picture of what the animal is doing and telling the story of where the animal has been.

Crocodile tracks Image: Ben Atton

To learn to read the animals tracks we needed to learn our tracking ABC’s, meaning we had to study the subtle difference in the tracks of similar species until we were familiar with them in all their forms. Firstly, you need to make sure that you can see the tracks clearly by applying four simple principles:

1.Get the light right – try to get the track between you and the sun, avoid casting shadows on the track.

2.Get the angle or direction right – if you can orientate yourself in the direction of travel the tracks are easier to recognize.

3.Examine the details – notice the subtle difference that can make a big difference in identifying species.

4.See the whole picture. – look all around to make sure you’re not just getting a small part of a larger print, there may be other clues located all around.

Close up of track Image: Ben Atton

Once you are certain you have the whole picture, looking at the finer detail requires asking more questions to work out the species. How many toes does it have? What shape do they make?  Are the toes round or pointed, parallel or angled? Are there any pads?, if so what shape and how many? Is the footprint symmetrical or asymmetrical? Do they walk on the out rims or flat footed? Do you see claw marks? How large are there feet? Are they in a group or solitary? Are they direct registering? Just a few questions running through a trackers head while helping you to decipher the tracking code. Until one day when it clicks, and you know that;” it’s a ‘porcupine’ because it’s a porcupine”

Porcupine track Image: Ben Atton

During our time we saw a wide variety of tracks and sign. Including seeing all 5 of Africa’s big 5; Lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino, tracks within a 20m square area, as well as honey badger, hyena, baboon, crocodile, hippo and more. But it wasn’t just the big stuff we were taught to recognise, it was nice to appreciate the little sign too like the pattern a dung battle makes when pushing ball of dung.

Dung beetle tracks Image: Ben Atton

Related posts