In December 1994 I went to Thornybush Private Game Reserve to conduct the first tracker certification. I only had a vague idea of what I was going to do. One of the owners of the reserve, Trevor Jordan, asked me to evaluate his trackers and give them certificates. I decided to issue two certificates – Tracker certificate for 80% and Senior Tracker for 100%. The details of how I was going to evaluate trackers I had to figure out as I go along – I just had to follow my gut feeling for what will work. What made this even more nerve wracking was that due to financial problems (I was broke) I was stuck in Johannesburg for two years and have not even been in the bush, let alone do any serious tracking. So my tracking skills were very rusty. But I had published two books on tracking, so I had a reputation to live up to.
On my arrival I was introduced to a group of rangers and trackers, who were told that I was going to evaluate them. It was clear that they did not think much of this idea – something the boss had forced onto them from above. And after all, who is this guy coming from the city who thinks he can teach them anything about tracking in their own Bushveld terrain. The skepticism was obvious on their faces, which made me even more nervous. I started off by giving an introductory talk about how tracker certificates can help trackers get better jobs and negotiate better salaries. The lack of response from the rangers soon made me move on to the next step – a practical test on spooridentification. So we went out to the nearest waterhole to find some tracks.
Before I could start, one of the Shangaan trackers stopped me. He circled a track in the dust – a faint smudge that looked like nothing. One by one he asked each of the predominantly white rangers what it was – none of them got it right. Then he asked each one of the Shangaan trackers present to tell him what it was – none of them got it right. Then he turned towards me and said: "You tell them what track this is". Looking down at the track, I pointed to three other smudges near it, the four together forming the bounding gait of a hare, and told him: "It is a hare". He looked at me and said: "Ok, now you can continue".
This Shangaan tracker was Wilson Masia, who subsequently became one of the first three South African trackers to be awarded the Master Tracker certificate. In the last 14 years, he has been the only tracker who received the Master Tracker certificate in the Lowveld. On my very first tracker evaluation, I was myself tested by the best Shangaan tracker that I have known in the entire Lowveld. If I got the hare track wrong, he would have sent me back to Johannesburg, and the tracker evaluation system would never have been developed. But the moment he called me to identify that track, after everyone else got it wrong, I knew that he was the best tracker in this group. And the moment he put me to the test and accepted me, he effectively showed the other trackers that they should respect me for what I was trying to do for them. I immediately made Wilson part of the evaluation, asking him to help me conduct the assessment. From that day on, Wilson, together with the far-sighted support and encouragement of Juan Pinto (who later became a Senior Tracker), was part of the tracker evaluation process and together we developed and refined it over the next ten years. I often relied on Wilson's local knowledge of the area and especially his phenomenal lion tracking skills. It took me years to develop my own lion tracking skills to the point where I could conduct a Senior Tracker evaluation without Wilson backing me up. And in the Kalahari I developed a similar relationship with Master Tracker Karel (Vet Piet) Kleinman. The success of the tracker certification process does not depend on any one individual – it depends on the relationship developed amongst a community of trackers.
Over the years, we not only refined the certification process, but I also found that conducting evaluations is the most effective way to develop your own tracking skills. Every time you go to a new nature reserve or national park, you have no idea who you will be evaluating. There is always the chance that the next Master Tracker could be in the group, so conducting an evaluation keeps you on your toes. You have to have the humility to admit your mistakes when one of the trackers challenges you. The important thing to understand about the tracker evaluations is that it is not about how good you are as an individual or trying to prove yourself. It is a critical peer review process that develops the skills and expertise of all the trackers who participate.
As the initial evaluator I myself can never obtain a tracker certificate, since that would be circular – I cannot give someone a certificate and then ask that person to give me a certificate. My role is simply to act as a catalyst – to initiate and set in motion a process that will give recognition to the skills and expertise of trackers. Once this process is up and running I myself will no longer be needed – to succeed I have to make myself redundant.
We honor Master Trackers not because they are the best individual trackers, but because of the contribution they have made in developing the tracking expertise of others. The first three Master Tracker certificates were awarded at the same time to avoid the perception that any one tracker may be the best. And sharing our knowledge flows in two directions. Sometimes we would find a track that neither Wilson nor myself could identify – but then one of the younger trackers, who was sitting quietly to one side watching what was going on, will discover that the tiny markings in the wet mud at the edge of a puddle of water, were made by the jaws of a wasp collecting mud to build its nest. In this way, the tracker certification process helps us all to discover more about tracking. Tracking can be infinitely complex in its subtlety and refinement. You can never learn everything that there is to know about tracking. In this sense, no matter how many years you have been tracking, we are all just beginners.
Why We Need Tracker Certification
Trackers can play an important role in education, ecotourism, search & rescue, anti-poaching, crime prevention, wildlife monitoring, and scientific research in nature reserves, national parks and protected areas.
Creating employment opportunities for trackers provides cultural, social and economic benefits to local communities. The employment of trackers will also help to retain traditional skills that may otherwise be lost in the near future.
The CyberTracker certification system has proved to be a very efficient training tool.
In national parks and in the ecotourism industry there has been an increasing need to verify the abilities of rangers and trackers. Rangers are used to gather data for monitoring wildlife and it is important to validate that the data they gather is accurate. Expert trackers can give valuable assistance to researchers studying animal behavior. The employment of trackers in scientific research requires the highest level of tracking expertise. Tracker certificates will help to validate data collected by trackers by providing an objective test of observer reliability.
The art of tracking should therefore be recognized as a specialized profession.
In order to develop the art of tracking as a modern profession very high standards of certification need to be maintained. Trackers are graded in order to determine their level of expertise, so that they can be promoted according to different salary scales. This provides an incentive for trackers to develop their skills and strive towards the highest levels of excellence.
A New Perspective
The CyberTracker Tracker Certification was initiated by Louis Liebenberg in 1994 in the Thornybush Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park.
Initially our aim was to establish a strong core of expert trackers, maintaining the highest standards. Over the years we have resisted pressure to lower our standards for the sake of getting more trackers certified. To lower standards at the start of this process would have jeopardised our core standards and would have made it difficult to maintain high standards within a broader context of inconsistent standards.
During the first 20 years we were able to focus on maintaining the highest standards, since there was no sense of urgency. Issues like climate change and population growth seemed very remote into the future. However, it is now becoming increasingly clear that climate change, population growth and the rapid loss of biodiversity are becoming increasingly urgent.
The world is experiencing a period of rapid environmental change linked to habitat change, pollution, and climate change. Monitoring biodiversity is critical for effective conservation management. There are too few professional ecologists to deal with the scale of environmental challenges. Furthermore, global biodiversity conservation is seriously challenged by gaps in the geographical coverage of existing information. Locally based monitoring is particularly important in developing countries, where it can empower local communities to manage their natural resources. Trackers can play a critical role in preventing poaching of endangered species such as rhino, elephant and tigers. Trackers can also be of great value for monitoring rare and endangered species.
Rhino and elephant poaching in Africa are out of control. Gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, pangolins and a number of other species may well be driven into extinction. In Africa and Asia there is a critical shortage of trackers who can be employed in anti-poaching units. Protected areas may need more than one tracker per 2000 hectares (20 square kilometres) to bring poaching under control.
To monitor global changes in biodiversity and to bring poaching under control we may need hundreds of thousands of trackers worldwide.
Over the last thirty years traditional tracking skills in southern Africa have been lost at an alarming rate. About 90% of the Kalahari Bushmen Master Trackers have passed away, their knowledge and skills irretrievably lost. Meanwhile, the younger generation had no incentive to become expert trackers. Among hunter-gathers, the bow-and-arrow and persistence hunting have been abandoned as the use of dogs and horses were introduced. This has resulted in a decline in tracking skills.
At a time when traditional tracking skills are being lost we may require many thousands of certified trackers to monitor changes in the environment due to climate change, pollution and habitat destruction.
We need to re-assess our priorities for tracker certification and look at how we can accelerate the growth in the number of qualified trackers, but without compromising our standards. Over the last 20 years we have issued about 5000 certificates worldwide. To scale up from less than 5000 qualified trackers over the first 20 years to more than 100 000 trackers in the next 20 years, we need to introduce a learning process that will result in a rapid increase in the number of qualified trackers.
We now have a strong core of Senior Trackers and Evaluators, which allow us to now introduce new levels of certificates that will stimulate interest in tracking without compromising standards.
Our "gold standard" certificates are the Professional Tracker, Senior Tracker and Master Tracker. These are the certificates that should maintain a consistent and exceptionally high standard in order to develop tracking into a modern profession.
In order to stimulate the growth of the tracker community, we need to introduce new tracker certificates where the emphasis will be on an informal learning process,
The objectives of the CyberTracker Tracker Certification include:
- Promoting the cultural, social and economic benefits of the art of tracking.
- Stimulating an interest in tracking among children, young people, adventure students and the general public.
- Develop tracking into a modern profession by maintaining the highest standards in tracker certification.
- Promoting the employment of trackers in education, ecotourism, conservation management, search & rescue, anti-poaching, wildlife monitoring and scientific research.
- The recognition of traditional knowledge, the pursuit of new knowledge and the highest levels of excellence in the art of tracking.
Registered Trade Marks
Professional Tracker, Senior Tracker and Master Tracker are registered Trade Marks of CyberTracker Conservation NPC and may not be used without permission.
CyberTracker Evaluation Standards Committee
Louis Liebenberg, Wilson Masia, Juan Pinto, Adriaan Louw and Mark Elbroch