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Newsletter 73
01/07/13

The Evolution of the Tracker

"He's the man we call the tracker
He has the eyes to see
Living on his instinct year to year
He's at one with the prey
He's part of nature's way
But he's living in the twilight of his day"
          From the song "The Tracker" by JV

Hello Friends 

To compare different trackers from various countries is like comparing Rod Laver to Rodger Federer who played at different times with different equipment. 

Rather I have highlighted the strengths of the various trackers and the animals they favoured and the environment that they worked in. 


Winnis Mathebula and Two Tone Sithole, simply the best on lion

I start with the legendary Winnis Mathebula. Winnis came to work for my grandfather Charles Varty on the recommendation of James Stevenson Hamilton the first warden of the Kruger National Park.  

Winnis had learnt to think like a lion and would often leave the track and go to where he thought the lions were moving to, be it a waterhole or dry river bed. In this way he could save time. Occasionally he would get it wrong and then by that time it was too late to go back to the track. 

Once Two Tone Sithole joined Winnis the team became formidable. Two Tone was a famous poacher and therefore was not a lion specialist. Two Tone tracked anything that could be turned into food. Therefore Two Tone would take the lion track and methodically track the lion, track by track. Winnis would move ahead anticipating the lions direction. If he lost the track he would come back to Two Tone and so no time would be lost. For lion, as a combination, Winnis Mathebula and Two Tone Sithole were simply the best.  

At Londolozi Game Reserve there are various landmarks which reflect the names of these two great trackers. In my book "Nine Lives", there are many stories in which Winnis and Two Tone feature prominently. 


Elmon Mhlongo learned to operate a sophisticated movie camera

For leopard I'm going with my good friend Elmon Mhlongo. Elmon was there when we first found the Mother leopard and it was due to his tracking skills that I was able to make the award winning film Silent Hunter. The sheer volume of hours spent tracking the Mother Leopard gave Elmon huge insight into her habits.  

At the end of her life, Elmon knew every den site, every hunting trick she used. He could tell from her body language whether she was tense or calm or angry. Many times his advice kept us out of danger. I don't believe there is a leopard before or since that was tracked as intensively as the Mother Leopard. I believe Elmon Mhlongo and Richard Siwele, another one of Londolozi's trackers, know more about leopards and how to find them than any living human beings. 


Lakakin can spot a cheetah at over 1km across the Mara grassland

For cheetah I'm going with Lakakin Sukuli. Lakakin is a Masai elder who lives in the Masa Mara. At the age of 16, Lakakin killed a lion single handedly with a spear when it attacked his father's cattle. Lakakin's long sight across the grass lands is phenomenal and he would regularly see lion and cheetah at a distance of a kilometer. 

I'm sure Warren Samuels will agree that many of the great cheetah and lion sequences captured during my time in the Mara, was due to Lakakin's ability to anticipate which way the the predator would break and where the kill would be made. Often film cars and still photographers would follow us, because they knew that Lakakin would put us in the prime position. 

For overall bush skills I will go with Lakakin's brother, Karino Sukuli. Karino is a Masai but he operates more like a Ndorobo. He owns no cattle but makes a living out of hunting with a bow and arrow and then trading the meat Often he will go into Tanzania for weeks at a time living off the bush. 


Traditional Shangaan bow and arrow hunter

As a boy, as told in my book, "Nine Lives", Harry Kirkman would tell me about the legendary bow and arrow hunter Engine (Elmon Mhlongo's uncle), Although Harry Kirkman told me Engine was a poacher, I secretly wished I could go hunting with Engine. Engine died before I could ever meet him. 


Karino Sukuli, the best of the best

When I went  in the early 80's to Kenya, I met the legendary Karino Sukuli. Karino was living the exact same lifestyle as Engine had lived at Londolozi many years before. Many times instead of going filming, I would go hunting with Karino. He showed me how to make the poison for his arrows from the Acacanthera plant. He showed me the different techniques used to hunt different animals. In terms of knowledge of plants and wildlife he was an absolute master. 

In my book, I describe an incident when Karino, Elmon and myself were charged by a buffalo. After the incident, Karino explained to me that if a buffalo got hold of me, I should sham dead and the buffalo would eventually lose interest and move away. Many years later, when in the jaws of the Tiger Corbett, Karino's advice flashed through my mind, but I quickly dismissed it as not relevant to an aggressive tiger mauling me. 

A tracker who survives off the land, the plants and the animals, will always be superior to a tracker whose food is guaranteed from another source. In Karino's words "hunger is the great teacher". As the complete bushman, tracking, hunting and knowledge of animals I put Karino as the best of the best. 

Hunters gatherers like Karino were part of the ecosystem. The animals they killed with bow and arrow had minimal effect on the numbers. Alas the Karino's of this world are a dying breed. 


Tracking skills are today as valuable as a university degree

The modern tracker is playing a crucial role in the expanding tourists industry. Complete with a formal education and able to speak English the modern tracker can interact with tourists from abroad and are becoming involved in photography and filming during the game drives. 

During your next trip to a game lodge, when you get that magical leopard shot, consider for a moment the part that your tracker has played in finding the leopard. When it comes to tipping, reward him accordingly. 

Game Lodges should be encouraged to copy the Tracker Academy set up at Londolozi Game Reserve by Alex van den Heever and Renias Mhlongo, which has kept the art of tracking alive. Aspiring trackers graduating through the Academy can go on to become guides and have extremely successful careers in the tourist industry. Today tracking skills are as valuable as a University degree. 

On the dark side, poaching syndicates have sought out individuals with tracking skills. Equipping them with high powered rifles and G.P.S's, huge amounts of money are being offered to trackers for horn and even information as to the whereabouts of rhinos. 

A corrupt tracker who has been bought off, can with a G.P.S in his pocket, while on a game drive, mark the G.P.S of the rhino and then with a cell phone call the position through to the syndicate. 


Mozambicans with tracking skills, being hired by the poaching syndicates

Rural people from Mozambique with bush and tracking skills are being recruited by the poaching syndicates and the Kruger National Park has been hard hit by poaching in 2011, 12 and 13. All rhino in Mozambique which came from South Africa originally are dead and the horns sold to Asia. 

One thing is for sure many "corrupt trackers" will die or go to jail and many more rhinos will die before the rhino war ends.  

Tread Lightly on the Earth
JV

 

Tread lightly on the Earth

info@jvbigcats.co.za
Copyright 2007 @jvbigcats  All rights reserved


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