About Wildlife Tracking

Written by Kersey Lawrence

Most of my experience comes from animal tracking, from working with trackers from indigenous communities who follow animal trails for ecotourism in South Africa, and from the CyberTracker system of Tracker Evaluations developed by Louis Leibenberg in South Africa, so I write from those perspectives, not from the perspective of a person who tracks other humans.

Before I begin, I feel compelled to define what tracking means to me. In its most basic sense, tracking is track and sign identification (spoor identification), this includes (but is not limited to): the identification, interpretation, and aging of tracks and sign – these are the A, B, C’s of tracking. Moving beyond the A, B, C’s of tracking requires the ability to follow and find an animal (trailing). Trailing builds on the knowledge of spoor identification, it becomes the story, the sentences and paragraphs of how an animal interacts with the landscape and with other entities on the landscape (biotic and abiotic, inter- and intra-specific), and of how the landscape, weather, and seasons moves the animal. Trailing requires knowing the baseline behaviors of the species and of the individual animal that you follow. Knowledge of baseline will help you decide where the animal is most likely to go, and to recognize when its behavior deviates from baseline so that you can determine if that information is important to following and finding the animal.

Thus, colloquially, a person can call himself or herself a tracker, or say that they are going out to do some tracking, when what they really mean is that they are practicing only spoor identification (common, without subsequent knowledge of trailing), or only trailing (uncommon, without prior knowledge of the former), or both of these skills– when technically to be a tracker or to practice tracking is the combination of both of these skills and the person’s overall level of expertise is only as great as the lower of the two skill levels.

Backing away, momentarily, from an explanation of skill levels and whether or not there is a need and a means to measure them, I want to explore an additional contribution to my definition of tracking. It includes spoor identification and trailing, but also builds upon the idea of storytelling. When interpreting tracks and sign and following an animal’s trail, what we are really doing is reconstructing the story of who it is and where it went and what it did, and then we put these events together into the most likely scenario of where it is going – some people call this intuition or intuitive tracking. The more events we have previously interpreted and reconstructed, and the better we know the land and the animals, the better our intuition becomes at fleshing out the whole story and the more successful we become at following and finding the animal. I don’t believe that this level of intuition, of recreating and telling an animal’s story, and especially of following an animal’s story using only scant physical evidence is possible without spending thousands of hours doing it – and I have not met an indigenous tracker, yet, who disagrees with that statement.

Excerpts from my forthcoming PhD Dissertation:

Modern wildlife tracking includes identification and interpretation of tracks (footprints) and signs (broken branches, browsed branches, beds, kill sites, feathers, bones, scats, etc.), and following a series of fresh tracks and signs – a trail – to find their maker. Both of these two activities, tracks and signs identification and interpretation, or trailing, are colloquially called tracking, and people who conduct these activities are called trackers. There are also trackers who follow and find humans for search and rescue or fugitive purposes, but this research focuses on wildlife tracking (Elbroch et al. 2001; Elbroch 2003; Elbroch et al. 2012) . In this research I use the term tracking (and variations of that term) to mean the identification, interpretation, and following and finding of animals using their tracks and signs; I am not referring to the temporal data associated with telemetry (including GPS), genetic markers, or another technology.

This research focuses on participants in an international tracker certification system, the CyberTracker Tracker Evaluation, developed in Southern Africa by Louis Liebenberg. CyberTracker evaluations provide participants with a metric of their current tracking expertise in a field evaluation format. The field evaluation also serves as an instructional workshop, in which participants gain experience in how to differentiate tracks and signs of different species, including those with similar size and foot morphology that are easily confused. Field evaluations also improve the accuracy and reliability of participants’ skills by utilizing an immediate feedback testing system that facilitates learning (Liebenberg 1990c) .

Evaluations were first developed in South Africa in 1994, and then spread throughout Southern Africa. In 2007, Liebenberg and Elbroch implemented the CyberTracker system of evaluation in the USA, and it has subsequently been introduced across Africa, in several European countries, Taiwan, and in Canada (http://www.cybertracker.org, http://www.trackercertification.com).

Outside of Africa’s guiding industry, mostly hobbyists use CyberTracker evaluations to test their own levels of knowledge and to improve their skill. Even in Africa, the evaluation system has been disregarded in many management and scientific circles as either unnecessary (“tracking is easy”) or as untrustworthy (many believe that it’s impossible to differentiate, for example, a caracal’s (Caracal caracal) track from a serval’s (Leptailurus serval) track, two very similarly sized felines)(A. Louw pers. comm. 2011).

CyberTracker is the only internationally used system for evaluating trackers; prior to 2013 it was the only system at all. In 2013 another system, very similar to and based on the principles and methodology of the CyberTracker system was developed in South Africa. This research does not analyze components of the replicate system, nor differences between the replicate system and the original one.

In some countries, such as South Africa, the term “tracker” connotes a specific occupation. Trackers in Africa are often black-skinned persons of tribal descent, frequently non-literate, and have historically participated in cultures that live close to the land in hunting, gathering, agrarian, or pastoral lifestyles by which they obtained profound naturalist or ecological knowledge about the landscape and the organisms that live on it. This traditional-ecological knowledge assists trackers in the pursuit of animals because they know where a specific animal will be found, in what season, during what moon phase or weather episode, at what time of the day or night, how it typically interacts with others of its own species and how it interacts with others of different species, where it will go to find the best foods and sheltering locations, how often it needs to drink and where the water sources are located (Liebenberg 1990a; Liebenberg et al. 1998; Liebenberg 2006; Liebenberg 2008; Liebenberg et al. 2010a; Liebenberg 2013) .

Tracks and signs (T&S) identification and interpretation can require a participant to follow a short segment of an animal’s trail for the tracker to gather enough information to reach a conclusion about species identification – for example, following a faint trail to reach a clear track; to reveal the track pattern specific to the way a particular species moves; or to differentiate stride lengths between animals with similar foot morphology but different body-sizes/leg-lengths. These short stretches of trailing during T&S are usually no longer than a few meters and do not require the full set of skills used in trailing to identify a fresh animal trail, follow it, and find the animal without disturbing it.

T&S is considered the required foundational knowledge of more advanced tracking skills. T&S identification and interpretation is comparable to a person learning the A, B, C’s of the English language before being capable of stringing together letters and words to form a coherent sentence, then constructing a full paragraph and eventually, a story, which are skills more metaphorically compared to trailing (Liebenberg 1990b; Liebenberg et al. 2010b; Liebenberg 2013) .

Trailing an animal effectively requires sufficient expertise in both tracks and signs identification and naturalist/ecological linking in order to reconstruct the animal’s behavior on the trail, to speculate on where it might be going at times when the trail is not obvious, and know when a trail is sufficiently fresh enough to safely approach a potentially dangerous animal (Liebenberg 1990a; Liebenberg et al. 2010a; Liebenberg 2013) .

by Kersey Lawrence

What we can learn from CyberTracking: Applications of an international tracker evaluation system for professional and citizen science.

Draft PhD Dissertation, University of Connecticut.

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