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.
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.
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.
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.