The Art of Tracking may well be the origin of science. After hundreds of thousands of years, traditional tracking skills may soon be lost. Yet tracking can be developed into a new science with far-reaching implications for nature conservation. Involving scientists and local communities in key areas of biodiversity, CyberTracker combines indigenous knowledge with state-of-the-art computer and satellite technology.
By Louis Liebenberg
The Origin of Science
CyberTracker has its origins in an apparent paradox in human evolution: the brain evolved both in size and in neurological complexity over millions of years. A fully modern brain had evolved at a time when all humans were hunter-gatherers. Yet the same brain that has been adapted for the needs of hunter-gatherer subsistence, today deals with the subtleties of modern mathematics and physics. To resolve this paradox, I argued that the art of tracking may have been the origin of science, requiring the same creative hypothetico-deductive reasoning that is required for mathematics and physics. Scientific reasoning may well be an innate ability of the human mind.
If the art of tracking was the origin of science, then modern-day trackers should be able to do science. However, some of the best traditional trackers in Africa cannot read or write. To overcome this problem, the CyberTracker was developed with an icon-based user interface that enabled expert non-literate trackers to record complex geo-referenced observations on animal behaviour.
!Nate and the Persistence Hunt
In 1990 I ran the persistence hunt with !Nate of Lone Tree in the Kalahari. The persistence hunt involves running down an antelope in the mid-day heat on an extremely hot day – chasing the antelope until it drops from heat exhaustion. However, in the process I almost died of heat stroke. After running down the kudu, !Nate risked his own life to run back to the camp to get water. This was a turning point in the relationship between !Nate and myself, and we became life-long friends.
!Nate asked me to help them. They could no longer live as hunter-gathers and needed jobs. Wildlife in the Kalahari has been decimated by fences that cut off migration routes. It was no longer viable to live as hunter-gatherers. And the art of tracking was dying out.
Master Tracker !Nam!kabe
After discussions around the fire, it was decided that I should try to find a way to create jobs for trackers. Only by developing tracking into a modern profession, will tracking itself survive into the future. !Nam!kabe agreed that this will be good for the future. But he also had the wisdom to know that it will take a long time. This was for the younger generation, he said, it will not be for him. When he died in 1995 his exceptional tracking expertise was irretrievably lost. He was one of the last of the old generation hunters and one of the best trackers. !Nam!kabe inspired the creation of the Master Tracker certificate – the highest standard of tracking that others could aspire to.
The Birth of CyberTracker
In 1996 I teamed up with Justin Steventon, a brilliant young computer science student at the University of Cape Town. The CyberTracker user interface was developed with the help of Karel Benadie, a tracker working in the Karoo National Park in South Africa. Together with fellow ranger and tracker James Minye, they tracked the highly endangered Black Rhino, recording their movements and behaviour in minute detail. Together we published a paper on rhino feeding behaviour in the journal Pachyderm. This is perhaps the first paper based on data gathered independently by two non-literate trackers, confirming a hypothesis about rhino feeding behaviour put forward by the trackers. It was a demonstration that non-literate trackers can do science.
Revitalising Tracking Skills
In order to revitalize tracking skills, I initiated the Tracker Evaluation system in South Africa. But what was most significant is that of all the trackers who were evaluated over the years, Karel Benadie and James Minye, working with the CyberTracker, showed the most rapid improvement in tracking skills. Karel explained that the CyberTracker helped him improve his tracking skills in two ways: In the past, he may have walked past a small hole, but with the CyberTracker he would stop to investigate the tracks going into the hole in order to record the observation. So the CyberTracker made him look at tracks and signs that he may otherwise have ignored. But the second reason is perhaps more inspiring – the CyberTracker motivated him to record all his observations, because he knew that one day his children will be able to see his work.
So in addition to the Tracker certificates, which motivates trackers to improve their skills, the CyberTracker also proved to be an effective tool to revitalize the art of tracking.
Back in the Kalahari in 2001, I worked with David Attenborough on the BBC film (see Video below) showing Karoha doing the Persistence Hunt. As part of the agreement, the BBC donated a CyberTracker unit, a Desktop Computer and a solar charger to the community of Kagcae. This gave Karoha the opportunity to demonstrate that he can master the CyberTracker technology – not just collect data, but download the data, view the data on maps, and recharge the batteries. While the project successfully demonstrated his ability to use the technology, funding was still needed to pay trackers to collect data on an ongoing basis.
Persistence hunting may be the most ancient form of hunting, possibly going back two million years, long before the invention of the bow-and-arrow or the domestication of dogs. After two million years, Karoha may well be the last hunter who has been doing the persistence hunt. Yet of all the hunters at Kagcae, Karoha is the most proficient in using the CyberTracker. In Karoha, one individual not only represents one of the most ancient human traditions, but also the future of tracking with computers.
Western Kgalagadi Conservation Corridor Project
In 2008 the Western Kgalagadi Conservation Corridor Project was initiated, funded by Conservation International for a three-year period. Community members from several villages were employed to use the CyberTracker to conduct track counts. This was the first time that !Nate and Karoha were employed in a major research project, enabling them to use their traditional tracking skills, using the CyberTracker, in a modern context.
The Tracker Institute
The Tracker Institute is a centre of learning for the highest standards of excellence in the art of tracking and was established in 2012 to develop the next generation of Master Trackers.
The Tracker Institute is situated in the Thornybush Nature Reserve, providing the opportunity to track lion, leopard, rhino and a wide diversity of species. In addition to providing intensive individual mentoring of practical tracking skills, it will also serve as a research institute and will build up a reference library containing books on tracking, animal behaviour, anthropology and philosophy of science. The Institute will aim to provide the highest levels of theoretical and practical expertise in tracking.
Towards a New Science
From its origins in the Kalahari, CyberTracker has now found its way into conservation projects worldwide. Most users simply use CyberTracker to record data. But the art of tracking also represents the most sophisticated and refined form of human observation. A fleeting glimpse of a small bird disappearing into a thick bush is closer to a sign of a bird than a clear sighting. A distant sighting of a whale in rough seas can be just as difficult to identify as an indistinct track. A dried out twig, with no flowers or green leaves, can make identification of a plant as difficult as identifying the faintest sign in the sand.
Whether looking at birds, butterflies, plants, whales, tracks or signs, human observations can be infinitely complex. The master trackers of the Kalahari can inspire the development of increasingly refined observation skills.
The CyberTracker story is captured in the powerful image of Karoha holding the CyberTracker, with his hunting bag slung over his shoulder. The image symbolises the cultural transition from hunter-gatherer to the modern computer age. Karoha's story represents the most profound cultural leap – a story that gives hope for the future: The ancient art of tracking can be revitalized and developed into a new science to monitor the impact of climate change on biodiversity. A new science that can help us solve one of the most complex challenges of the future.
Liebenberg, Louis. (2013). The Origin of Science. Cape Town: CyberTracker.
Liebenberg, Louis. (1990). The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science. Cape Town: David Philip Publishers.
Liebenberg, Louis. (2006). "Persistence Hunting by Modern Hunter-Gatherers", Current Anthropology. 47:5.
Liebenberg, Louis. (2008). "The Relevance of Persistence Hunting to Human Evolution", Journal of Human Evolution. 55, 1156-1159.
Liebenberg, Louis, Lindsay Steventon, Karel Benadie and James Minye. (1999). "Rhino Tracking in the Karoo National Park" Pachyderm, Number 27.
Liebenberg, Louis, Edwin Blake, Lindsay Steventon, Karel Benadie and James Minye. (1998). "Integrating Traditional Knowledge with Computer Science for the Conservation of Biodiversity". Paper presented at the 8th International Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies, Osaka, Japan, October 1998.
Liebenberg, Louis. (2003). "A New Environmental Monitoring Methodology".