Ntsindiso Mankangeni and Mzimasi Dlakavu are two graduates from the SA College for Tourism Tracker Academy, which was founded at Samara in 2010 and now occupies several sites across South Africa. They received their training in 2017 at the centre in Tswalu Kalahari Reserve in the Northern Cape, and they are now completing a 1-year internship programme at Samara. The purpose of their internship is to train them in elephant behaviour and tracking, and to prepare them for jobs in the ecotourism or research industry. Their internship is made possible by the generosity of Elephants Rhinos People and Nedbank Private Wealth.
Both men grew up in Lusikisiki, a small town on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast. Neither had a job before joining the Tracker Academy, which provides a 6-month or year-long course in the traditional skills of tracking to underprivileged individuals, particularly from rural areas.
Elephants do not occur on Tswalu, so Ntsindiso and Mzi were unfamiliar with Samara’s elephants at first. The job of the elephant monitor who is training the two young men, Penny Pistorius from ERP, is to work through data recording techniques, refine their tracking skills and teach them about elephant behaviour through the Understanding Elephants manual.
However it’s not just elephants that they are learning about here, comment the two men. Being at Samara is allowing them to experience and learn the many facets of a new environment. At Samara the landscape, vegetation, weather, cultures and people are different from what they are used to and all are helping to enrich their learning experience. Both men say that they like being out in nature, and as somebody who likes to learn Mzi comments that he’s always learning when he’s out in the bush. He once saw wild animals as meat, but no longer, he says. The Tracker Academy changed that.
Over the past few months their knowledge of elephant behaviour has progressed dramatically. Both men have learnt to identify the trees commonly found on the mountainsides that the elephant herd has been frequenting. One of their favourite trees is the Jacket Plum, and Ntsindiso is particularly thorough when it comes to highlighting evidence of elephant browsing on the vegetation.
Identifying the elephants, particularly the younger ones, has proved a bit more challenging. The matriarch and sub-matriarch are easy to identify given that they are both the largest and one of them wears a tracking collar. However the four youngsters look much more alike, and it can be tricky to identify them when they are in thick bush. Practice makes perfect when trying to identify the individuals, and it helps to focus on their behavioural characteristics as well as their ear markings. Mzi in particular has perfected this skill and has shown a sensitivity towards the elephants, comments Penny. He is also comfortable with recording the monitoring data and the coding system used.
As well as spending time in the field with Penny monitoring the elephants, both tracker interns have the opportunity to gain work experience in Samara’s ecotourism division by tracking for guests at the two lodges on the reserve. This is an excellent opportunity for the men to learn the inter-personal skills required for becoming a tracker or a guide, skills that cannot be taught in a classroom. Both men accompany game drives and guided walks on rotation with Samaras’s experienced and qualified rangers, learning about the other wildlife on the reserve and guest interaction, whilst imparting their tracking skills and newfound knowledge. It is a crucial part of their training, as both men see their internship as an opportunity to find full-time employment. Samara is exceptionally proud of the men’s progress since they started, and particularly so as they are both from the Eastern Cape, the province within which Samara sits, and one of the poorest in South Africa.
The tracker interns’ next big learning curve will be when the elephant bull is reintroduced to the reserve, which will likely change the dynamics of elephant movement and use of the Samara landscape. It is an exciting prospect, and one that will provide Mzi and Ntsindiso with a host of new knowledge.