Friday, January 7, 2011

Learning and preserving the ancient art of wildlife tracking

Keen to learn: Pokkie Benadie (second from left) and students track
a rhino and calf at Samara.
 The invitation by my son Alex to visit the only wildlife tracker academy in South Africa at Samara private game reserve near Graaff-Reinet was irresistible. We had heard the step by step progress over the months and I had visited Samara for part of a travel story before the academy’s first students arrived. Everything was now in place and it was time to go and see for ourselves.

Lessons start early at the SA College for Tourism Tracker Academy and when my wife and I arrived to join a tracking session one of the students, Robert Hlatswayo was waiting to guide us to the tracker group which had already gone into the bush. Neatly turned out in the academy uniform, Robert was clearly a motivated young man, keen to show us how it’s done. Alex and resident trainer, Pokkie Benadie were supervising the group of four – out of an intake of eight - as they set out to track a rhino female and her calf.

Pokkie is a modest, instantly likeable man with a firm handshake and a ready smile. He is a native of the Karoo, the product of more than 30 years’ experience at the Karoo National Park and a certified master tracker. He started out looking after his father’s sheep and trapping jackal and caracal which threatened them. By age 16 he was able to identify the tracks of all the local wild animals and follow them through the bush.

With Alex and Renias Mhlongo, both veterans of Londolozi private game reserve in the Lowveld, and both senior trackers, Pokkie makes up the team of trainers who are passionate about imparting the techniques and ethos of professional tracking.

Like Pokkie, Renias grew up tending his father’s cattle in the Lowveld and the responsibility was great. His father was a traditional man who was jealous of his herd and sternly intolerant of any dereliction of duty. So, when cows went missing in the veld, there was only one way of dealing with the problem – tracking them down.

Alex and Renias started out as a ranger-and-tracker team at Londolozi, taking mostly wealthy overseas guests on game drives and introducing them to the African bush. Early on, when Alex was still a rookie, they were looking for tracks in a dry riverbed when Alex was charged and knocked down by a leopard female which had a cub nearby. Renias kept his cool and virtually saved Alex’s life by quietly giving him the right instructions as the leopard stood menacingly near, with Alex’s rifle flung out of reach. It was a pivotal moment for Alex and the two have been close friends ever since.

They have travelled overseas together, to London for example – Renias the village boy’s baptism of fire into the Western world – and to train American trackers to follow bears and other wildlife in Yellowstone National Park in the US. They also do a motivational talk together called The Power of Relationships, based on their mutual experiences.

Pokkie, Renias and Alex received tracker certification from Louis Liebenberg who has played a major role in re-igniting the ancient art of tracking in South Africa. He is the author of the seminal book The Art of Tracking and is the only known person to be working with indigenous people on documenting this deep knowledge of the wilderness.

After spending the first six months at Samara the groups of students move to Londolozi where they complete the year’s training with Renias.

All ears: Alex uses a special program to help
students identify bird calls
While walking in the veld with this group of students, we soon saw the enthusiasm and willingness to learn. With his neat military-green outfit and stick (which they all carry when tracking), Pokkie reminded me of an army instructor. But that is certainly not his style. The neatly rolled up sleeping bags and towels in the dormitories do indicate discipline, but these young men are taught to think for themselves. When tracking a dangerous animal in thick bush, for example, they have to make up their own minds whether to proceed or not. They are encouraged to “give themselves permission” to proceed.

Each of the four – Nathan, Robert, Tutani and Clearance – took turns in leading the group as it tracked the rhino and calf. There were some tell-tale signs of the animals’ passage, like fresh dung, but picking up and following the tracks – to the untrained eye simply semi-distinguishable smudges in the soil – is a demanding activity requiring close attention, stealth, silence maintained with hand signals, and constant vigilance. There were signs of apprehension as each individual took the lead, but witnessing the students’ dedication to the task was heart-warming.

We made our way over open ground and eventually to a largely dried up dam where the signs showed that the animals had been to drink and then left. We continued the pursuit - stopping along the way to identify birdcalls - through a dry riverbed and into some thick bush. I could tell by the breeze on my unusually bare legs that we were upwind of the mother and calf (a tip picked up from the bit of training received) and, sure enough, there was a sudden crashing noise of big animals in the bush ahead of us. We couldn’t see them, but they were well aware of our presence and made off again. Keeping this up requires some energy since while large and apparently cumbersome animals, rhino are nimble on their feet.

After about three hours, and opportunities to view other animals, including some beautiful eland, the big moment came. With Tutani leading the group, the two rhino crossed our view. We had found them, and the game was up.

Back at the academy we could relax with all the students, the other half of whom had been watching wildlife DVDs under the supervision of Janetta, Pokkie’s wife. She is delighted to be playing an active role at the academy, providing meals and general “housemother” support of the students, as well as conducting some of the lessons.

Pokkie is also intensely satisfied with the way things have developed: “It has always been my dream to teach these skills, and I am very pleased to be here. You learn a lot by teaching others, which gives you extra confidence.”

Alex had the last word: “Our aim is to empower the custodians of Africa’s wilderness to preserve the continent’s last remaining wild areas. Our intention is that our graduates will bring authenticity and accuracy to environmental education, anti-poaching, eco-tourism, data collection and conservation, all of which hold the promise of gainful employment for these young people.”

Home on the range: The Tracker Academy building.

This story appeared in the Sunday Independent and Weekend Argus Travel.