The Native Americans believe that tracking animals is a sacred responsibility. They believe that it is a gift that enables you to enter the centre of the lives and homes of animals, and therefore you must treasure it and respect the animals by being non-intrusive. Should you get too close and disturb them, the results can be disastrous, especially for the young that may be abandoned. It is vital that you remember that you are visitor in their home and no more. In Africa the art of tracking is being lost as new generations lose interest in nature and instead choose technology and modern city living over outdoor activities. As a result special programmes have been developed to try and save the unique art of African tracking, so far with a moderate degree of success.
Tracking involves studying and knowing all the signs of animal presence i.e. ground spoor, vegetation spoor, scent, feeding signs, urine, feces, saliva, territorial signs, shelters, incidental signs, circumstantial signs shelters etc. Footprints are the most important signs in tracking, as they provide the most information regarding the identity, movements and activities of the animal. The trail is also very important in providing other signs and adding detail.
Just like footprints and gait can identify people, each animal can be identified by its spoor and unique way of walking. Spoor can indicate age, weight, gender, and health. Larger mammals and birds can be identified right down to a particular species by its spoor, but in smaller animals it is only possible to narrow it down to a genus, family or order, as the smaller the animal gets the more difficult it is to distinguish its spoor from other species.
The best footprints to read are the ones found in slightly damp earth or in snow. It should always be remembered that footprints are easily distorted by an animal running, slipping or twisting. The hind feet may also step where the fore feet have been, thus distorting both prints. The shape of the prints will indicate the activity that the animal was involved in at the time.
Other tracking signs include: scent, which is influenced by temperature and weather. When the weather is cool and calm, scent lasts longer than if it is hot and windy. Mornings and evenings are also better times for scent than noon, and obviously, winter is better than summer for temperature. Wet ground is more favourable than dry ground, but rain will obliterate all scent. However, after it has rained for a few days and the air is humid, a tracker may be able to scent animals in the right wind conditions.
When it comes to identifying droppings it is easier to associate them with fresh footprints on the scene, this is also a good way to learn to recognise droppings. Fresh urine and droppings provide additional information on the age of the spoor, while the feces will reveal a great deal about the animal’s diet. The position of the urine patch in relation to the position of the footprints can indicate the gender of the animal.
Incidental signs are things like tufts of hair, feathers or porcupine quills and may not even be related to the spoor concerned. They may belong to the animal being tracked, but they could have been blown there by the wind or they could have been there for a long time and have very little to do with the animal’s current activities.
Circumstantial signs are indirect signs, usually some behaviour by other animals, which give away the presence of the animal being tracked. For example the Oxpecker bird, which rides on Buffalo, Eland and Kudu to feed on ticks and blood sucking flies, will fly away in the event of anything approaching, thus alarming the animals but also giving away their position. Baboons also draw attention to themselves by moving about rapidly and making a great deal of noise.
Trackers must be intimately familiar with their surroundings and must know the pattern of nature undisturbed so that when something in it is disturbed, they will recognise it, even if the disturbance is slight. When it comes to tracking spoor it is best done if the spoor is kept between the tracker and the sun, that way the shadows cast by the ridges in the spoor will show up well. Tracking is easiest in the morning and late afternoon when the shadows of the ridges are longer and stand out more than at midday. If possible, trackers will look ahead of themselves and not at the ground at their feet as this will slow them down. However, if the terrain is tricky they will have to look at the ground nearby, not only to see where they are going but also to keep a close look out for any minute change in direction of the spoor.
Good trackers should be able to imagine themselves in the place of the animal and anticipate the way it would have gone. They should then be able to expect where to find signs without wasting valuable time looking for them. This also requires intimate knowledge of the surrounding area and terrain in order to anticipate paths taken and possible stops at water holes.
Once a tracker has sighted the animal, it is important to remain undetected by all the other animals in the vicinity. This means avoiding dry leaves and twigs and moving as quietly as possible through dry grass. It is also important to stay downwind of the animals i.e. the wind must blow towards the tracker and away from the animals.
There is definitely an art to tracking and a great deal of knowledge that must be learned in order to do it successfully. Very little of that knowledge can be gained from books, as nearly all of it has to be taught on a practical level and once the lessons are done and the course is over, all the novice trackers will find the real lessons have only just begun.