101 beginners guide to the science behind wildlife tracking

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A master wildlife tracker is able to discern clues, reinvent what transpired on the landscape, and make predictions about the prey.

Tracking started eons of years ago, before modern man or the cyborg era as we know it. It is a skill cultivated over a lifetime through practice, research and taught from generation to generation. 

Hunter-gatherers used tracking techniques for survival. That is they hunted for food by foot. Been guided through the Kalahari on foot by a local San, offers an authentic perspective of this. And if you have ever been privy to such an experience, you will understand the privilege it offers that I speak of. 

Tracking has certainly evolved from survival of physically observing and trailing wildlife to a technology based entertainment field. Of course the theory behind and the skill attached to implementing these theories will always remain… anyone can be a tracker, but not everyone will be a master tracker.

A master tracker is able to discern clues, reinvent what transpired on the landscape, and make predictions about the prey.

  • Fundamentals of tracking
  • What tracks reveal
  • Problem solving puzzle 
  • Get your clues here
  • Tracking today

FUNDAMENTALS OF TRACKING

Juan Pinto, Director of FGASA (Field Guides Association of Southern Africa), agrees that there is more to tracking than recognising spoor. Tracking is the deeper understanding of the systems and patterns that make up the environment surrounding and incorporating the tracker. 

Animal behaviour and the environment play a pivotal role in tracking. He says, “There are two fundamental principals to tracking. First, identifying any track or sign such as spoor, a hair or even a dropping. This is then followed up by trailing to ultimately find the animal.” 

In order to identify signs, a tracker often has a defined image of what a typical sign looks like, and without this preconceived idea, signs may be overlooked. 

WHAT TRACKS REVEAL

Can tracks reveal information about an animal’s physiology or behaviour? “Undeniably their behaviour”, says Juan. One cannot assume from a leopard track that she is pregnant. However, if you follow her trail from den site to den sight one can assume that she is investigating these dens because she is pregnant. And consequently,  she is looking for a suitable place to give birth. These signs and hypotheses can later be confirmed when we see her with her young. 

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THE PROBLEM SOLVING PUZZLE

Tracking wildlife in the bush is an ongoing problem-solving puzzle. It is also interesting that the timing of an animal can be determined by spoor. Take the following scenario, it can be assumed that a leopard was in the area in the early morning if the leopard’s spoor is above that of a serval’s (nocturnal wild cat) spoor. 

Some other signs to pay heed to when in the bush:

When it is hot and dry, go to a water-hole. When it is extremely wet cats prefer to walk on the road.  The conduct of birds and specifically their alarm cries is of practical value as an indicator of situations that are important to trackers. Then, uprooted trees could indicate a herd of elephants. Or spotting a kill in a tree may just lead you to that leopard sighting! 

Different species can be identified by variations that are characteristic of a particular species. Understanding characteristic features of spoor enables the tracker to analyse fractional or partly obliterated spoor which may otherwise be difficult to identify and interpret. Functional adaptations of feet may be for specific types of locomotion – feet adapted for speed will have only a small area in contact with the ground.

Therefore where ever you are, always look for signs! Even if it is flattened grass! Think of it as a game of CSI! There are countless obscure clues all about us. We simply need to tap into our senses, and interpret!

In order to be a good tracker you need to understand the relationship of the spoor of the animal, and how they relate to the environment. And finally don’t look at the bush, but rather through it. Trackers need to vary their vision in order to see new things.

GET YOUR CLUES

Tracks include fresh and ageing

Because fresh tracks stand out more they are obviously easier to spot. Ageing tracks are affected by both soil type and weather conditions including rain and wind.

Hoofed – a thick covering over the foot belonging to ungulates which include the following: antelope, zebra, giraffe, elephant, rhino, buffalo, hippos, warthog and wildebeest.

NB: Elephants are the only animal with a large oval track! And rhino tracks are often mistaken for hippo tracks, but rhinos only have 3 visible toes in the track. Whereas hippos have 4 visible toes in the track

Paws – the foot of an animal having claws or nails which include: cats, African painted dog, jackal, hyena, porcupines, hares, mongoose and my favourite the crazy honey badger and elusive pangolin. 

Primates – these are easily distinguished by having smaller hand prints in front to the larger feet behind. You will identify a palm with four elongated fingers and thumb. 

Webbed feet – a foot with the toes joined by a web which include: crocodiles, otters, terrapins and lizards. 

Snake – they leave furrows in the ground which can be either straight or wavy. There are approximately 5 types of snake locomotion tracks including: 

  • wave like movement, 
  • sidewinding, 
  • pulling up the body into bends and then straightening out forwards,
  • rectilinear locomotion which is movement in a straight line,
  • slide-pushing locomotion which involves vigorous undulations of the body that slide widely over the surface

.

DUNG

Interpreting dung tells an incredible amount, and similar to tracks can also be broken down into fresh, and ageing. But, working out just how old the dung is can be tricky without experience.  Generally, aged dung is hard! But weather factors like wind and sun could speed up this process, thereby fooling you into thinking it is older than what it is. Therefore, one should also consider the location when interpreting. For example, is the dung situated in the shade, or is it in the sun?

Other important characteristics to look-out for when interpreting your dung include: size, shape, smell, colour and, yes, its contents!

Cow-pat shape – buffalo being closely related to cows have similar dung, forming somewhat large rounded but flat piles on the ground.

Pellets – most of the smaller herbivores have pellet like poop, however identifiable by different shapes, colour and sizes. 

Big ball – from the big 3 hoofed animals namely, elephants, rhino and hippo! The dung can be distinguished by interpreting the different vegetation that they eat. You will most likely identify bits of branch etc in elephant dung. And although hippos have big ball dung, it can often be distinguished because especially the male will spray their dung onto bushes or deposit it in rivers. 

Sausage shape -What you will likely discover in the sausage shaped dung is hair, fur, feathers and bone. But this is the most difficult of dung to distinguish between the different cat species, wild dog and baboons.

TRACKING TODAY 

Applications

Technology has evolved (and continues) and many are taking advantage of it. Mobile apps have been designed and launched to share information on interesting animal sightings in national parks.

However, is this compromising the values of good game viewing in national parks?

SANParks has said that the rise in the use of these applications has resulted in an increased rate of lawlessness in the parks. This includes speeding, congestion and rage at sightings! As well as road kills caused by visitors chasing to the various sightings.

One particular app, Latest Sightings responded to SANParks indicating, “We work with organisations like the Endangered Wildlife Trust to protect Wild Dog, Predator’s Project in the Greater Kruger, The martial eagle project, and Operation Game Change / Wildfest to protect rhinos.  And our community helps report through the app when animals are spotted snared or injured by poachers to help rangers find them faster.  Every morning we post the rules of the park encouraging safe driving, and courtesy at sightings.

Satellite

Headquartered in South Africa, AWT is utilizing ORBCOMM’s state-of-the-art satellite modems to provide secure, near real-time GPS tracking and monitoring of large animals such as elephants in some of the world’s most remote regions and densest forests. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) transmitters on smaller animals such as wild dogs and cheetahs communicate with the ORBCOMM devices on the elephants’ collars and transmit data to AWT’s proprietary software applications. The ORBCOMM modem’s small size and low-power consumption transceivers have resulted in improved longevity and performance in the battery-powered elephant collars. By having access to near-real-time data, researchers, conservationists and game reserves can extrapolate and analyze the information, deliver insights into animal behaviour and gain visibility into situations when animals are under threat of poaching through alarms, tamper detection and geofence alerts.

It is evident satellites and applications have their place when it helps reduce poaching, protect endangered wildlife and deliver valuable insights into animal behaviour for researchers and conservationists. But in the end tracking is a language, that gets you down on the same level as the environment and connects you with the earth. I may speak for myself, but I appreciate the leisurely drive through the parks, and the potential reward of finding my own good sighting as a key element of my visitor experience. There is a thrill to trailing your next sighting. Who wants instant gratification through an app?

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Tracy Burrows118 Posts

    Tracy Burrows is the founder of the Out There Global platform featuring both cost effective and luxury best cultural vacation ideas & experiences from around the world. From Jan 2014 – Dec 2016 she managed the LatestSightings.com blog (a United Nations World Summit Award Winner: Culture & Tourism 2016 & National Geographic partner). She was also consulting editor at MOZambique Magazine, and a contributing writer at Sawubona Magazine (South African Airways inflight magazine), and Africa Geographic. Prior to her career she obtained a tourism research, and marketing degree, and also graduated from a 2 year ‘Management in Development Program’ in San Diego California. She also acquired a qualification in journalism and media and since it’s been all about culture, adventure and multi media! Her nourishment comes from all those who have impacted her, including: family; friends; and strangers alike. Thank you for joining our journey, and we hope you enjoy finding an immersive experience and the culture & adventure in the destination! Aside from Out There Global Magazine, Tracy has also run a Public Relations, and SEO business since 2010 for small business.

    13 Comments

    • David Saucier Reply

      February 5, 2023 at 3:01 pm

      Definitely no applications! Thanks for this read very interesting

    • Dot Reply

      February 6, 2023 at 5:25 am

      This inspires me to want to become a tracker! How much fun it would be

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      Agree with you no to apps. Takes the fun out of finding the sightings. I hope you do a sequel to this

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