Tracking Animals

I am sure that we can all agree to how interesting it is to read about our ranger’s animal sightings and indeed what a wonderful job they are doing in finding these animals. This however takes a tremendous amount of skill and patience, and unfortunately not all the time and effort spent gets rewarded with good animal sightings. There are just so many factors which come into play when attempting to find the animals and creatures our guests have come to see. I thought it might be a good idea to explain some of the skills they employ when they go about finding the animals.

Luckily for us and our guests, we have game drive vehicles out every day. This makes it easier to keep quite a good and accurate record of the location of the animals. Or at least the areas in which they were last active. This however does not mean that you can merrily drive to the spot where you found the lions earlier and think they will still be there in the evening. The one surety with wild animals is . . . they can move, and they normally do!  Now at least one has something to work with, because as they move they leave tracks.  Not just anyone is able to follow these tracks though and that is where our expert trackers get involved. Most of these trackers grew up in the area and tracking is a way of life for them. Whether it is to find stray cattle or to track down smaller animals in order to hunt and provide for their families, they are used to it and understand it.

For the unfortunate ones that have not been privileged to go on safari yet just the following: On a game viewing vehicle there is normally 10 seats dedicated for guests, and then on the front left of the vehicle there is a seat for the tracker. The ranger is normally the one driving and communicating to the guests while the tracker keeps out an ever watchful eye for animals, and also animal tracks.

Once tracks are spotted the tracker will inform the ranger, and so the process of tracking down the animal begins. It is very important to try and determine the age of a track since it would be almost pointless following a track older than about 2 days. By this time the animal you are tracking could be miles away and maybe not even in the area anymore. Wind and rain are only two of the many factors which influence the “look” of a track. This is why it is important to keep track (excuse the pun) of these external conditions that may influence the spoor.

Unfortunately, animals do not stick to the roads and this is where the trackers play a huge role in tracking the animals in an “off-road” environment.  They jump of the vehicle and start tracking the animal on foot.  Once they have found the specific animal they are tracking they radio their ranger and direct him in towards the location.  Being professionals in animal behavior, the tracker normally poses no threat to the animal they have tracked and as long as they respect the animal, and read the signs correctly, they are in no danger.  Most animals give you a fair warning if you are too close and only a fool chooses to ignore that.

We do not however rely on tracks only.  Sometimes a drag mark across the road could indicate the presence of a leopard or lion kill. The presence and sounds of hyenas in the area which are busy feeding could also give the location of a predator away.  These signs are however much easier to follow and quite often lead to nothing at all.

Once animals are found, some of our rangers will frequent the area to determine what the animals are doing and asses if they may have moved away already.  In this case the ranger and tracker start the tracking process all over again. Fortunately Lions usually stay in an area for quite a long time when they have made a “kill” and are eating.  They normally only move away from a “kill’ in order to have a drink of water or if they are being pestered by other predators like hyena.  A Buffalo kill could keep lion occupied for up to 4 days.

With bigger animals like elephant for instance, tracking becomes increasingly easier. They leave loads of signs and heaps of dung behind that even a novice tracker could follow.  This however doesn’t mean you will find them on all your drives.  Although big in stature they can disappear silently and quickly and their cunning and intelligence makes them quite impossible to find some days.  It occasionally happens that you don’t find any signs of their presence especially after a rainstorm when all signs of their passing have been washed away.  At time like this it is better to just drive to another area  and switch off the vehicles engine and listen for the sounds of branches cracking and trees being pushed over. Elephants have a raucous feeding behavior which in this way nature normally gives you a lead to follow up on.

In closing, it is important to understand that these wonderful creatures around us are not at our beck and call all the time. Behind the scenes there are a lot of dedicated people doing their utmost to satisfy safari goers, and although we would like to show our guests everything that our wildlife has to offer, this is sometimes just impossible. A little bit off luck is sometimes the only difference between a good game drive and a great one.

As the saying goes, ‘you win some… you lose some”

By: Johan Esterhuizen
Reserve Warden

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