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Animal Tracking Enters the 21st Century

Developed by the earliest hunters, wildlife tracking skills remain essential tools for conservation.

By Judith D Schwartz
Oct 29, 2015 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:42 AM
Louis Liebenberg, co-creator of the CyberTracker software for collecting tracking data. Below: Compatible with current smartphones and tablets as well as older handheld devices, the GPS-supported application allows native trackers to share and receive field observations. | Rolex/Eric Vandeville


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Allan Savory crawled through the dense brush, feeling for indentations beneath the leaves, signs of a lion. Two hired trackers from Botswana had long abandoned the quest, so it was up to him to capture the predator that was killing local cattle.

For several hours, Savory tracked both the lion and the trackers. Past the point where trackers lost the path and veered away, he kept on, following “grains of sand on top of fallen leaves,” he says. But eventually, the sand dwindled to nothing. In the teak forest, nightfall was approaching. He was losing the light.

As a ranger with the Colonial Service in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in the 1950s, Savory frequently found himself on the trail of rogue elephants and man-eating lions. For particularly high-risk fauna, the rangers usually relied on native trackers. Savory noticed, however, that when it came to lions, particularly those that developed a taste for humans, the trackers invariably “lost” the trail to avoid an encounter. If he was to do his job, he had to teach himself to track.

Thus it was that he now found himself at dusk on his hands and knees, maneuvering through the undergrowth, drawing on what he’d learned from observing native trackers and the nuances of the landscape to help him catch a wild animal that could very well kill him. He continued creeping along the forest floor for some 30 or 40 yards until he came to a narrow part of the bush that the lion had gone through.

“So I crawled through very quietly, but being so narrow, I had to push my rifle ahead of me,” Savory recalls. He didn’t want to go any deeper into the bush with the rifle’s safety catch on. He released it as gently as he could, but the click was still audible. “The lion heard that, so it growled and rushed off,” he says. It was only 10 yards ahead.

Stepchild to Science?

These days, Savory is best known for developing Holistic Management, a decision-making process for land use in which practitioners manage livestock so that their behavior mimics that of their untamed counterparts. Experiences like that close call with the lion play into his work today: Savory believes his tracking skill enabled him to develop the Holistic Management framework. Only a tracker would drop to all fours to assess marks and patterns on the soil surface and envision the precise action of hooves that created them.

Tracking is an art that has guided Savory through several decades of stalking wild game and, later, guerrilla warfare. It also has contributed to key insights about how animal behavior can be harnessed to improve the condition of the land, especially in regions like his native Zimbabwe with long dry seasons during which ruminants are conveyers of soil fertility and moisture.

But in an era of satellite-driven data, with detailed information about virtually any dot on a map, tracking has lost much of its life-and-death urgency for the rest of us. This raises the question: Is tracking still relevant, or is it merely a quaint, lesser stepchild of modern science?

“I don’t know a better way to teach observation, deduction and reasoning,” Savory says. Indeed, recent years have brought new applications of tracking for ecological research and conservation. So rather than being a dying art, tracking may be coming into its own.

Tracking is as old as mankind. The earliest hominins hunted and therefore engaged in simple, or systematic, tracking, says Louis Liebenberg, the South African author of The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science. Systematic tracking entails following an animal, using clues and signs like spoor (tracks, scent or droppings), displaced stones or trampled grass for guidance. You’re sticking to empirical evidence, no guesswork.

In speculative tracking, the tracker anticipates an animal’s actions. You’re projecting yourself into the animal’s mind based on knowledge of animal behavior and the terrain, says Liebenberg. Speculative tracking trades in prediction and possibility and allows the hunter to stalk prey and be alert for shortcuts. Evidence of the bow and arrow dates to about 70,000 years ago, he says, suggesting that speculative tracking was used by that time.

“Speculative tracking reflects the essence of science,” he says. The tracker assesses signs in the environment to construct a working hypothesis about the animal and its whereabouts, which would be confirmed or disproved as the evidence emerges. “It’s about the human imagination,” he says. “A physicist can only see signs of a particle but cannot see the particle itself.”

Liebenberg’s interest in tracking, like Savory’s, arose from experience in the African bush: Out of interest and curiosity, he began observing and drawing animal tracks while serving in the military in northern Namibia. Liebenberg had important mentors, including master trackers of the Bushmen, or San people, in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana.

Liebenberg regards tracking not just as the foundation of scientific endeavor — he suggests it drove the development of human intelligence. He believes this is supported by the increased intellectual sophistication required as tracking evolved. Liebenberg’s theory is that scientific thought arose from tracking. The analytical skill required “says something about what makes humans unique: the ability to make causal connections,” he says.

He regards the development of speculative tracking as particularly relevant to the scientific enterprise. This is where cognition took a leap. The tracker is not just observing signs but using the signs to pose “what if” questions like, “If the animal is looking for cover, where might it go?”

While we’ll never know the exact trajectory of our intelligence, skills like tracking “are part of the development of the human genus as well as the human genius,” agrees Daniel Lieberman, a professor in Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, where Liebenberg is an associate. Scientific logic and understanding was needed among all hunter-gatherers, he says. “You have to be a naturalist, and to formulate and test hypotheses.”

Looking 20 Yards Ahead

At the Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe, about 12 miles south of Victoria Falls, Savory takes his wooden walking stick and traces marks on the ground. “That’s a sable hoof. Baboons have been here. Elephants were here recently,” he says. He draws my attention to lines and indentations of varying degrees of legibility: signs of the wealth of animal life on the Centre’s land.

Louis Liebenberg, co-creator of the CyberTracker software for collecting tracking data. Below: Compatible with current smartphones and tablets as well as older handheld devices, the GPS-supported application allows native trackers to share and receive field observations. | Rolex/Eric Vandeville

To me, it was a spot like any other we’d walked or driven through that morning: mats of yellow grasses over rich, red earth and scrubby trees with only the occasional winterthorn showing green. But Savory found plenty of animal signs.

At nearly 80, Savory is slight and nimble and keen to his surroundings. He wears green khaki shorts, a light cotton shirt and a wide-brimmed felt hat — but no shoes. He says this benefits tracking. “With every single footstep, I’m conscious of the temperature of the soil and its texture. Here, it’s cool,” he says, pressing a foot into the ground. Later, when the ground is too hot, he’ll reluctantly don a pair of Crocs or his thin-soled kudu-skin shoes that flap open where they’re worn through.

For Savory, tracking brought together his two passions: wildlife and the military. He grew up during World War II and was steeped in the romance of battle. “I was fiercely proud of Rhodesia’s role in the war,” he says. He considered attending the British Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst. “I didn’t want to be a peacetime soldier, so I went with my other passion, the bush.”

In the 1960s, at the start of the long civil war that yielded Zimbabwe’s independence, Savory was able to use his tracking expertise. He developed tactics suited to bush guerrilla warfare and established the Tracker Combat Unit that became the elite Selous Scout regiment, renowned for its counterinsurgency successes.

“I worked them from dawn to dusk,” Savory says. “You get splitting headaches because you have to concentrate without stop. There are no coffee breaks. If you’re at risk of getting shot at, you can’t afford to miss any cues.”

Since then, he has consulted on military tracking and countertracking — how to avoid being tracked. Over many years as a ranger, soldier and farmer, he studied the landscape and sought to understand why protected areas in southern Africa continued to deteriorate. While visiting a ranch in South Africa, it came together for him: He noticed a corner of a paddock where a large number of sheep had grazed for a short while. The animal impact had improved the soil so that seedlings were sprouting and the water had soaked in rather than run off.

He crouched to get a closer look. Where the sheep had been, the rich, moist soil was nourishing plant life. Elsewhere, the ground was hard and dry, and there were bare patches between plants. This led him to appreciate that animal disturbance could benefit as well as harm a landscape, and that this was how wild herds of grazing animals had maintained native grasslands.

The insight that sparked Holistic Management was that livestock could be made to act upon the land as their untamed counterparts had done. In practice, the holistic rancher constantly evaluates land condition and adjusts management accordingly. Doing this well depends on sharp and timely observation — just what tracking teaches.

For Savory, the African bush is alive and full of stories. He gleans the who, what, when and why of the land.

CyberTracker uses a pictographic interface so that neither language nor literacy will pose a barrier to sharing information. Modern tools like this can aid in everything from animal population surveys to anti-poaching efforts. | Rolex/Eric Vandeville

“When I walk around, this is what I’m looking for, to see what’s been visiting. Here’s a giraffe, a cow.” He explains that a bull giraffe’s footprint would be slightly larger. When I focus in, I can see that the giraffe’s hoof marks are more elongated. I picture the animal that created it: a lanky browser with an improbably long neck, shoulder muscles rippling as it runs.

“When you’re tracking, you’re always looking 20 yards ahead,” he says. “Then you look down to interpret a series of signals. You’re thinking, ‘Was there a wind in the night? What was the angle of the sun?’ You’ve got to be aware of every single thing. The weather today. The weather yesterday. You’re always asking, ‘Why was tracking easier — or harder — yesterday?’ What does that tell us about the condition of the land, and whether animals might be seeking water or shelter?”

A tracker is always observing, he says, “a lot more than people are used to, and coordinating it all instantaneously. Not consciously, more like a tennis player, who’s not thinking of how to hit the ball.” He kneels down. “This could be old hyena spoor, or baboon. It’s too windblown to tell.” We’re more than a mile from the main road, and it’s still and quiet, except for the soft chirping of birds. “Most people would drive by and say, ‘Oh, nothing is here.’ ”

Track to the Future

Tracking may not be dying, but rather being adapted for the 21st century. Liebenberg, for one, wants to make sure this is the case. He’s long noted the irony that while trackers have deep knowledge of animals and ecology, many are excluded from science because they cannot read or write. To that end, in 1997 he teamed up with a software developer to create CyberTracker, a GPS-supported application for tracking data collection using smartphones or older handheld devices. The interface features icons so that illiterate trackers can share and receive field observations.

The notion of tracking with a computer may seem at odds with the primal image of stalking prey in the bush. Yet Liebenberg says trackers have never shunned new instruments. “Traditional tracking was driven by technologies, like the bow and arrow,” he says. “That technology, however, is disappearing. Therefore, the CyberTracker would replace the bow and arrow as a driver of the actual tracking.”

One goal of CyberTracker is to bring dignity back to the craft by highlighting the value of tracking skills. And by making the program accessible to non-readers, CyberTracker offers a vehicle for employment to native trackers so they can maintain those skills. Like Savory, Liebenberg contends tracking can contribute to many fields, from research and conservation to crime prevention. Tracking techniques are useful when monitoring nocturnal or reclusive species. For example, CyberTracker has been used in surveys of river otters, which are difficult to count.

Rolex/Eric Vandeville

“Tracking is inherently part of animal conservation,” says Jean-Gael Collomb, executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Network, a U.S.-based support and programming nongovernmental organization for conservation efforts in the field. Even with modern technologies, tracking skills play an important role, he says. When using radio collars on lions or wild “painted” dogs, for example, you still need to locate and secure the animal. At the same time, he says, technologies like radio collars can enhance effectiveness of traditional tracking.

Kenya-based elephant ethologist and conservationist Joyce Poole agrees that tracking and technology can build on each other in a way that invites participation in conservation science. Her organization, ElephantVoices, has developed Mara EleApp, a smartphone app for monitoring elephant signs, sightings and mortalities. Categorizing the age of footprints, dung and rub marks on trees was made far easier by “sitting down with the Maasai and learning,” she says. The app invites citizen science to contribute to a database. “We can learn which routes are important to elephants, which areas should be protected to sustain their movement, and where elephants are being killed,” she says.

Tracking skills and tools are in demand to stop elephant and rhino poaching, which, regrettably, have reached crisis proportions. Both CyberTracker and Mara EleApp track animal movements to note vulnerable positions. Anti-poaching patrols use these tools to monitor poachers, such as holes in the fence or other places they might enter the park so as to pre-empt or even catch them, says Liebenberg.

The best poachers are, by definition, good trackers, he says, which makes outmaneuvering them a challenge. Liebenberg has helped to organize intensive tracking training for park rangers and is seeking money to upgrade the CyberTracker software to allow for two-way exchanges in real time. One reason, he says, is “so poaching syndicates cannot hack in. They have money to pay hackers to do so. The only way to get around this is to give people [in areas where there are rhinos] better jobs.”

In other words, rather than waning, the art of tracking may be on the verge of a renaissance — with high-tech apparatus replacing the trusted bow and arrow or spear.

[This story was produced in collaboration with the Food and Environment Reporting Network, a non-profit investigative journalism organization. Travel was supported by the Pulitizer Center on Crisis Reporting.]

[This article originally appeared in print as, "Track & Field."]

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