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Ancient tracking skills and the rhino problem

By Samara on January 28, 2013

In many areas of our continent, over the past 30 years, ancient tracking skills have disappeared at an alarming rate. With rapid urbanisation in Africa, people no longer require the services of the original hunter-gatherers and traditional master trackers. Their deliberate ways of living have been replaced by modern retail outlets selling fast moving consumer goods. In the past, the trackers’ strong ecological understanding was in fact their ‘currency’, the value of which was measured by their exceptional knowledge of the landscape and their ability to track and find animals. They were often the leaders and the philosophers of their communities. These rural people were inextricably linked to nature.
With rhino poaching in sub-Saharan Africa reaching epidemic proportions, it is clear that previously applied militaristic methods of wildlife protection are no longer effective in isolation. It has now become a battle for the hearts and minds of those who live in poverty along the boundaries of our national parks and private game reserves. No longer can an institution rely on strong-arm tactics to prevent people from entering wildlife areas illegally. Literally millions of people wake up every morning and stare through the wire fences of game reserves wondering what opportunities may exist for them. Many regard wildlife areas as enclaves for rich people. The overwhelming majority of community neighbours never get to enjoy the benefits of the game reserves.
The current rhino poaching scourge is not only about the rhino or the poachers; it is also about the severe economic disconnectedness of people from our wildlife areas. The man who wakes up in the morning next to the fence sees no advantage in protecting anything inside that park. Why should he? The economy of wildlife has not materialised for him. The old adage of ‘conservation is about people’ could not be truer today. The problem is further accentuated by the lack of quality education in the rural areas where many national parks and private reserves are situated. Many young people who matriculate from rural schools are functionally illiterate and innumerate, leaving them little hope of finding gainful employment.
In January 2010 the Tracker Academy was formed with support from the Rupert Nature Foundation, the SA College for Tourism and Samara private game reserve. The Academy’s vision is to restore indigenous knowledge in southern Africa. We aim to empower our tracker graduates to become ambassadors for the African wildlife industry by bringing authenticity and accuracy to environmental education, wildlife protection, eco-tourism, animal monitoring and research.

Each year long Tracker Academy course trains sixteen young unemployed men living adjacent to wildlife areas in the arts of tracking. Our fully accredited tracker skills programme gives opportunities to rural people to participate fully in the economy of wildlife through employment and enterprise development. Not only do our tracker graduates earn an income, but they also practise an ancient skill that connects them intimately to nature, traditional culture and to the mission of our wildlife parks.

With 1300 hours on foot practising their tracking skills and about 120 encounters with large animals on foot, our students develop a high degree of tracking competency during the year. This sets the Academy apart from many other short ‘bush skills’ courses.

Since inception, some 90% of our tracker graduates have found permanent employment in the animal monitoring and habituation, eco-tourism and wildlife protection sectors. The Academy has shown that traditional tracking skills have an extremely valuable role to play in modern conservation. For example, two of our graduates have been contracted to start a jaguar habituation project in the Pantanal in Brazil, thus showing that tracking skills can have an impact far beyond the shores of Africa. Some of our graduates have started their own businesses taking people on guided walks which are used to teach indigenous skills. Others are monitoring honey badgers in the West Coast National Park. One graduate is tracking with sniffer dogs to protect rhinos in the Kruger Park area. These are just a few examples of young men who had little hope and are now contributing to conservation and in so doing creating wealth for themselves.

The tracker graduates return to their rural villages with a strong sense of conservation ethic. This has a subtle yet powerful impact as it spreads via debates and informal environmental lessons shared by the graduates. Last year I watched as one of our graduates tracked a spitting cobra into a mud hut, then caught and released it, thereafter he proceeded to give a lecture on the nature of snakes to the bystanders.

Skilled trackers have the ability to track and protect our rhinos, they are even trained to monitor them using sophisticated computer devices, but these animals will only be safe when the economic benefits associated with game reserves reaches all its stakeholders. This applies not only to direct employment but also to the multitude of services required by game reserves such as mechanics, artisans, electricians, laundries, fencing crews, private guides and many others.

A skill which evolved in Africa thousands of years ago for reasons of survival, and which is slipping away quickly, can be used directly and indirectly as an African solution to promoting conservation on this continent. In a small way, the Tracker Academy is addressing the skills shortage issue in South Africa, and in so doing contributing to an economically inclusive conservation industry where everyone, including the rhinos, can prosper.

Alex van den Heever
January 2013

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