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On the trail: A student’s introduction to tracking

BY: Callum Evans

Camp manager blogs are written by our current students who each get a chance to lead and manage a group (of their fellow students) for a period of one week.

During the fourth off-week of the semester, some of the Bushwise students attended a week-long course on trailing animals at Colin Patrick Training. We were based in the Balule Nature Reserve (BNR), a private reserve that forms part of the Greater Kruger National Park. 

Landscape of the greater Kruger.

This was one of the most intense and exciting weeks I’ve experienced during my five months in the Lowveld, and the encounters were only a small part of the excitement. I finally had the chance to learn about tracking on-the-ground and in more detail. 

Learning how to track animals was one of my goals when I decided to get my Field Guides Association of South Africa (FGASA) certification at Bushwise. And, having done very well on track and sign identification assessments, I was very keen to embark on the next step and learn how to track animals in the wild!

Bushwise students learning how to track and sign.

We arrived at iNkaya Camp in the BNR at around midday and had our first introduction to trailing later that afternoon. My group was tasked with following the path of an elephant herd leaving a small wallow. 

We took turns following the tracks with our trainer from Colin Patrick Training, Jacques, as he explained the process and the principles we should employ when tracking. We quickly realised how difficult tracking actually is. 

Elephant tracks, for example, are surprisingly hard to follow given their size. The trails often go through long grass, thick bush and across substrates where the tracks are very hard to make out. 

Bushwise students on a trail and tracking animals.

We had to learn how to identify partial tracks and scrapes on the ground, look out for feeding signs, assess dung freshness based on its temperature or the presence of dung beetles, and follow pathways of damaged vegetation where the elephants had been. 

We also learned how to identify alternative routes when the trail became unclear, and how to find our way back to a lost trail (which happens a lot in tracking). Even though we didn’t find the elephants that day, it was still a great experience.

The following day, we tracked elephants twice again, with no luck at first. But, we did spot a large bull elephant moving through the bushes during our morning trail! That was my first time encountering an elephant on foot, which was incredibly special. 

An elephant encounter during a trail walk.

Photo by: Callum Evans

Later that afternoon, we were finally able to find the herd of elephants we had been tracking. We found them feeding on top of a ridge about 50 metres away from us! We quietly placed ourselves to not disturb them and had an excellent sighting before moving away and giving them space to continue on. The best way to observe animals on foot is to go unnoticed!

We also did a bit of human tracking as practice, with some students laying a trail for the others to follow. This is an interesting way to see the difference between following wild animals and following people. I went with the group laying the trail, and as we were walking alongside a drainage line, we heard something moving in the bushes nearby. 

Jack, our Bushwise trainer, took a couple of steps forward and suddenly, a large lioness jumped out of the drainage line and onto the opposite side of the bank! She was almost fully concealed by the dense bush. We were very surprised and excited to see a lion on foot!

A female lion spotted in the bush.

Our trainer quickly realised there were two other lions nearby, so he cautioned us to back away slowly, while he kept his eyes on the lions. Soon, we reached a safer distance away, where we stopped to view them. 

Learning about tracking challenged us all, and in the end, it was rewarding. Being on foot in the bush allowed us to notice the smaller things that are easily overlooked and we were able to learn so many new things. From the diversity of wildflowers in full bloom to tiny velvet mites, from spotting a rock monitor digging a burrow to watching a long-billed crombec perched on its nest, there were a host of beautiful things to observe on foot, away from the roads. 

You can find different insects and flowers while on a trail walk.

To top things off, there were many special and fun moments shared between the students. Everyone on the course was able to achieve a level one or two in trailing (you can learn more about these kinds of certifications on the CyberTracker website). But I’m sure that for all of us, this is only the beginning. 

I can definitely say that I’m hooked! I plan to keep developing my ability to track as much as I can. As with any aspect of nature, there is always so much more to learn.

Go on exciting adventures with fellow students in the bush, like Callum, and find your passion in field guiding too.

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