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A Note on Wildlife Tracking

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

The following is an excerpt from my afterward for "Het Prentenboek", an excellent field guide to wildlife tracks and sign of Europe by René Nauta and Aaldrik Pot. It's a brief exploration of human relationship to wildlife and tracking, now and through the ages.

...most importantly, this practice is an invitation to dramatically transform how we perceive and relate to our wild neighbors. It offers a winding, remarkable path into our own past, and a way of interacting with Wildness that has been all but lost.

Ponder for a moment that for millions of years our hominid ancestors were but a tiny minority in a world absolutely teeming with wildlife—researchers believe that at a time there may have been as few as 13,000 hominids on the entire planet. They wandered landscapes brimming with other “tribes” of animals, large and small, dangerous or benign, each with their own strategies, adaptations and techniques for thriving on earth. Life of the past was by default a full-immersion study of wildlife.

Imagine that distant world: teeming with animals, but also a wildly complex storyboard scrawled with the tracks of hooved animals and soft-footed carnivores. Scats and carcasses littered the landscape and sign that expressed the diverse behavior of countless animals was splashed across grassland, woodland and tundra. Hominids began to read it all, and learned to read exquisitely—identifying a rich diversity of species, young from old, male from female. We learned to read the changes in wildlife sign according to the time of year and the behavior it dictated. We watched fresh tracks slowly age and fade from earth, honing our ability to place an animal not only in space, but also in time.

Earth has changed dramatically, but our need to know and celebrate other lifeforms remains. Tracking has a particularly powerful effect on humans because it provides a tangible experience with animals that are often invisible to us, existing just outside the periphery of our awareness. With time we learn to recognize the tracks and sign of a full spectrum of species, from beetle to blackbird, toad to wild boar. We become acquainted with particular foxes, martens, red deer and badgers. We find favorite bedding and feeding areas, where an old roe buck likes to rub, and the favorite marking spots of a local otter. As we grow as trackers and we see more and more Life written on the world, something happens in us. We begin to form a map in our minds—not only of hedgerows, woods, creeks, ponds, and paths, but of a vibrant landscape shockingly alive with real-life stories of animals we’ve come to know deeply. Ultimately, tracking becomes a life-long practice to identify who we are as a species, and how we fit into the world. It is a study of our own intertwinement with wildlife—now, and throughout the ages.

The last 3 decades have seen a remarkable resurgence in ever-spreading, high-level tracking skill. CyberTracker has played a pivotal role in supporting trackers with the tools not only to make correct observations, but to have the distinct ability to describe subtle nuances of a track or sign, encourage life-long learning and humility, and emphasize the importance of passing the skill set on.

Watching skilled tracking in the field can be astonishing. It is not simple guess work accomplished with a guide book in hand; it is the hard-earned ability to tease out evidence from challenging field-scenarios. Research in North America, South Africa and beyond shows that with the right training, tracking skill can be an invaluable asset with numerous applications: qualified trackers are now increasingly employed and utilized around the globe to conduct wildlife surveys, monitor and assess wildlife corridors, analyze carnivore kill sites, determine camera trap sites, assist in capturing, collaring and studying elusive species, engage the general public in conservation efforts, and more.

In CyberTracker’s efforts to re-vitalize and spread high-level, practical tracking skill, we’ve not only worked to produce good trackers but also to find those we can count on to take up the torch and carry forth the skill. Rene Nauta and Aldrich Pot are among the finest of those trackers, and we’re privileged to have them working for the cause. Over the years I’ve had the honor to see them push their skill set to a high degree, to watch them teach, and to see them help pave the way for a new generation of trackers in Europe and beyond...

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