We’ve mentioned it before in a post somewhere, but tracking the big cats is literally the greatest thrill for any ranger out here.

It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been on foot following the trail of a lion or a leopard (we don’t get to track cheetah all that often), each experience is as invigorating as the last.

Over the last few years, however, I’ve come to realise that there is a timing component to the whole thing. The relationship between the necessity of an epic sighting (assuming you find the animal) and the length of the track is an inverse one. In other words, the need for something magical at the end of the tracking effort starts to diminish rapidly the longer the track goes on for. Likewise, the thrill of the track, and the satisfaction you get from it, is going to start increasing exponentially the longer it goes on (again, assuming you find the animal).

Maybe this diagram will sum it up a bit more clearly:

The relative sizes of the paw print and leopard indicate the importance placed on each component of the experience as you move forward in time. If we’re scoring a potential sighting out of 100, with some marks for the sighting itself and some for what went into making it possible, the proportion of that total score that gets assigned to the tracking work increases the more time is invested in the track. I know I’m starting to repeat myself here, but I just want everyone to be on the same page.

If you’ve only been tracking for a short while and find the animal quite soon (left third), the sighting needs to be good in order to achieve maximum value.

In the middle third, you’ve tracked for long enough to have got enough of a rush from the on-foot part (I’m talking more from the perspective of the ranger here), and for the tracker to demonstrate his skill, but you still want the animal you find to be moving about a bit or at least to be out in the open.

A short track isn’t quite as invested a process, but it does hopefully mean you find what you’re looking for early enough for them/it to still be moving around in good light, like this young Mhangeni lioness.

In the right hand third, you’ve been on the tracks for awhile. I’m talking a good two hours here. Once that has happened, the quality of the sighting at the end of the track becomes irrelevant. If you find the cat after this long, the tracker looks like a rockstar, the whole vehicle will be high-fiving each other, and it won’t matter a jot if all you can see is a single rosette of a leopard visible in a dense stand of Guinea grass, the only thing that matters is that you persevered and found it.

If you’ve tracked for over two hours, who cares that your view is as obscured as this one of the Ndzanzeni female as a cub; all that matters is that you found her.

Andrea Sithole, one of Londolozi’s finest trackers. Andrea’s single best attribute is his persistence; he almost takes it personally if he can’t find the animal, and has regularly been known to stay out from first thing in the morning until well in the afternoon, staying doggedly on the tracks, making sure he finds what he sets out to find!

Obviously this whole thing is impossible to quantify, but if we were forced to go into numerical values, and using the score out of 100 mentioned above, for the first probably 30 minutes of a tracking effort, 90/100 would be on the sighting itself.

Jumping forward another 30 minutes, and the tracking weighting has increased. Tracks might be getting fresher, the leopard or lion might have moved through some tricky thickets, and the morning is starting to heat up. No one else has found a big cat anywhere, so the tracking effort is becoming increasingly important, and you’re beginning to move rapidly towards a 50:50 score weighting of track vs sighting.

The type of surface can be a great help in determining the freshness of tracks,as prints degrade faster when in a coarser substrate. These tracks in a sandy road are fresh!

Before you know it, it’s 09:30, you’ve been out there for a good few hours by now, and just as you despair of ever finding the Inyathini male (you’re sure it’s him because of where the tracks are moving, and the shape of his individual pads), the radio crackles, and the glorious words “I’ve located,” come across the airwaves from tracker Freddy Ngobeni, who you last saw disappearing into an extensive bushwillow thicket more than 45 minutes ago. It’s been a tough morning, frustrating at times, but despite the fact that Freddy (who is a complete wizard) was doing 97% of the actual tracking, it still felt like a team effort since everyone on the vehicle was wholly committed to the effort. No one wanted to go look for elephants or do something different. The group satisfaction that results from the successful culmination of an extended track is hard to replicate anywhere else.

This is all just food for thought when out there looking for animals. The search is a huge part of the whole experience. One of the most frustrating questions rangers get asked is “Why don’t you just put radio devices on the animals?”. Apart from being one of the surest ways to swiftly make redundant what is essentially humanity’s oldest art from (tracking) and removing some of the most incredible indigenous skills and knowledge from the world, we would be getting rid of an enormous part of the safari experience at Londolozi experience.

So what is it really about tracking that sets the field team here alight? Is it the challenge? The solving of the mystery; the whodunnit and where and why? The learning and refining of ancient skills?
Maybe it’s a combination of all of these, but I think the real reason we all love tracking, the reason we are all champing at the bit to get off our vehicles and walk for a while, and the biggest reason most of us wake up in the morning before dawn with excited anticipation, is that tracking is one thing above all others.

It’s fun.

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

View James's profile


on When the Sighting Becomes Less Important

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Darlene Knott

A safari is about the whole experience. If you want to go look at animals, one right after another, head to the zoo. If you want an incredible experience trying to think like a leopard or a lion, trying to guess where they might go, wanting to learn what tracks look like and how you know which way they are going and who they might be, when they might have come through, if you are willing to wait for that explosive moment when someone says ‘there she is!’, then a safari is more your style! The ‘thrill of the hunt’! Love it!

Marinda Drake

It is always so exciting on the game drive when the ranger stop the vechicle and tell us that he and the tracker are going to track an animal. It is the anticipation of knowing that we might see something unexpected.

David Fedonczak

Right on the money. I spent some time tracking with Boyd, Alex and Renias a while back and couldn’t get enough. Their knowledge along with Ren’s sixth sense about the animals was amazing.The thrill of the hunt was addictive. When I returned with my family, our guide Andrea let me take point for a while to show off what I had learned. Nothing compares to the feeling of putting in the work find your animal. I can’t wait to get back.

Judith Guffey

Freddy Ngobeni. Tops in my book.! But I must also include Elmond Mhlonho who we rode with in the 80s. Another very special man.

Judith Guffey


Denise Vouri

Anticipation is the elixir found in an African safari. Just driving and soaking up the sounds and smells could be enough but the first sighting of a significant paw print heightens everyone’s senses. Sometimes you don’t find the owner of the print, but the search is half the fun and oftentimes you find another interesting animal that makes it all worthwhile. Great article!

Callum Evans

I just love reading articles like this. I have done some amateur tracking before and I learnt a few things from friends and guides, but it is definetely something that I would like to learn properly.

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