What is Tracking?

Most of my experience comes from animal tracking, from working with trackers from indigenous communities who follow animal trails for ecotourism in South Africa, and from the CyberTracker system of Tracker Evaluations developed by Louis Leibenberg in South Africa, so I write from those perspectives, not from the perspective of a person who tracks other humans.

Before I begin, I feel compelled to define what tracking means to me. In its most basic sense, tracking is track and sign identification (spoor identification), this includes (but is not limited to): the identification, interpretation, and aging of tracks and sign – these are the A, B, C’s of tracking. Moving beyond the A, B, C’s of tracking requires the ability to follow and find an animal (trailing). Trailing builds on the knowledge of spoor identification, it becomes the story, the sentences and paragraphs of how an animal interacts with the landscape and with other entities on the landscape (biotic and abiotic, inter- and intra-specific), and of how the landscape, weather, and seasons moves the animal. Trailing requires knowing the baseline behaviors of the species and of the individual animal that you follow. Knowledge of baseline will help you decide where the animal is most likely to go, and to recognize when its behavior deviates from baseline so that you can determine if that information is important to following and finding the animal.

Thus, colloquially, a person can call himself or herself a tracker, or say that they are going out to do some tracking, when what they really mean is that they are practicing only spoor identification (common, without subsequent knowledge of trailing), or only trailing (uncommon, without prior knowledge of the former), or both of these skills– when technically to be a tracker or to practice tracking is the combination of both of these skills and the person’s overall level of expertise is only as great as the lower of the two skill levels.

Backing away, momentarily, from an explanation of skill levels and whether or not there is a need and a means to measure them, I want to explore an additional contribution to my definition of tracking. It includes spoor identification and trailing, but also builds upon the idea of storytelling. When interpreting tracks and sign and following an animal’s trail, what we are really doing is reconstructing the story of who it is and where it went and what it did, and then we put these events together into the most likely scenario of where it is going – some people call this intuition or intuitive tracking. The more events we have previously interpreted and reconstructed, and the better we know the land and the animals, the better our intuition becomes at fleshing out the whole story and the more successful we become at following and finding the animal. I don’t believe that this level of intuition, of recreating and telling an animal’s story, and especially of following an animal’s story using only scant physical evidence is possible without spending thousands of hours doing it – and I have not met an indigenous tracker, yet, who disagrees with that statement.


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