Tracking can sometimes be a painstaking process; if only one tracker is working a set of tracks, and the terrain is tricky, he or she will often be forced to retrace their steps in order to see whether or not the animal they are following has deviated from its path. Leopards in particular can be frustrating to track, as they tread very lightly and often leave only the faintest of scuff marks on the ground. It can be 25 metres between tracks, but the best trackers will follow through a combination of an ability to read the ground as well as an ability to read an animal’s behaviour.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned it somewhere before in a post, but the best trackers in the business take it personally if they can’t find an animal. In the game of tracking, it will be Leopard – 1, Tracker, 0 when the scores are tallied up, and this is simply unacceptable for the tracking elite. I have seen men like Andrea Sithole and Richard Siwela almost fuming upon their return from game drive if they have run out of time to try and find an animal(s). More often than not though, they will head back out immediately upon dropping off their guests for breakfast, in order to finish what they started and find that elusive lion or leopard.
The speed at which trackers are able to find an animal begins to increase exponentially the more trackers there are involved. Working as a team, they are able to cover the ground far more effectively, and on a morning not too long ago this was demonstrated to me when four of the best proponents of their art treated me to a master class of how it should be done.
Innocent Ngwenya (who recently qualified as one of the few Lead Trackers in South Africa!) and I headed out on a chilly morning with the sole purpose of finding some tracks and following them. No guests, no time limit, just the desire to follow in the path of an animal, on foot in the bush.
We didn’t have much luck to start off with, but within an hour ranger Melvin Sambo and tracker Milton Khoza had found tracks of what looked like the Piva and Iyathini male leopards interacting, so Innocent and I immediately made our way into the area to give them a hand. When I said that the tracks looked like those of the two male leopards mentioned, I should take a moment to point out that most trackers at Londolozi are able to differentiate between the tracks of individual leopards at a glance.
Tracker Equalizer Ndlovu also joined to assist.
I’ll state from the word go that I was a mere spectator here. Innocent, Milton and Equalizer were immediately in the zone, working together to find where the next track was if they lost the leopards’ route for more than a few seconds. At first, the tracks were certainly of two different males, but within a few hundred metres, it appeared as though one male had split off and the other one had now been joined by a female.
About 300m later, Renias Mhlongo, Head Trainer of the Tracking Academy and one of Southern Africa’s – if not Africa’s – greatest trackers joined the first three men in their attempt to find what we now suspected was a mating pair of leopards.
I don’t want to say it was almost a foregone conclusion from then on, but as near as I could tell, there was not a single pause in the the following of the leopards as the four men did what they do best. At one point Innocent turned to me and showed me some liquid that he had brushed off a leaf: “Leopard scent mark”, he said. The trackers were using every bit of knowledge at their disposal; not just looking at the tracks, but finding bits of fur caught on a thorn, seeing where one of the leopards had rolled in buffalo dung, and all manner of indicators only detectable with the type of experience that hundreds and hundreds of hours tracking dangerous game will bring.
As I was the one contributing the least to the tracking effort, which I freely admit, I was dispatched every so often to fetch the vehicle and drive it up ahead, taking great care not to drive over any tracks that might be on the road. After two hours or so, with the tracks looking fresher and fresher by the minute, I was becoming loath to fetch the vehicle anymore, feeling that I would surely miss the moment when the trackers discovered the leopards.
So it proved, unfortunately, as while I was driving the vehicle around to meet the trackers at Shingalana Dam, Innocent radioed to say they had heard the growling of leopards mating emanating from the thicket line near the Maxabene riverbed. Although slightly miffed I had missed the moment of discovery, I was nevertheless in awe of what had been achieved by Innocent, Equalizer, Renias and Milton.
Have a look at the map below:
Although some red dots ending up at a blue one don’t seem like such a long way on this small map, I’ve just checked the distance on Google Earth and it was just shy of 5km that the trackers covered during the morning! A pretty impressive feat.
Alex van Den Heever, having left Renias on foot with the others, had meanwhile been circling round seeing if he could spot the leopards with his guests from their vehicle, and pretty much as the trackers first heard their growls, he drew up to the termite mound upon which the leopards were resting. It was the Piva male and Tamboti Young female, which was in itself an exciting discovery, as the TYF has yet to birth a litter, and this mating could potentially see her falling pregnant. I arrived a minute later, but having left the lodge that morning with the sole intention of tracking something with Innocent, hadn’t brought my bulky camera bag with. This low-quality phone snap was all I could get:
The four trackers had shown just what they could do when given the time, and when working together as a team. Rangers Melvin Sambo and Alex van den Heever, themselves very experienced trackers, had given the four men on the ground as much time as they needed, and a mating pair of leopards was their reward.
The trackers of Londolozi are often the unsung heroes, as the best thing a ranger can do to help them find an animal is often to just keep out of the way, taking his or her guests to look for something else whilst still staying close enough to the area in order to lend assistance when necessary. As a result it can be hours between guests saying goodbye to a tracker as he sets out on tracks, and actually seeing him again. Although the subtle faculties that link ranger and tracker together out in the field go largely unnoticed by even the most experienced guests, it is this magic that can craft an incredible experience for visitors to the African bush.