Tracking: Combining an ancient art with modern policing

Article and photos by Kotie Geldenhuys

The Bushmen, who are superb trackers and who can make accurate deductions from the faintest marks in the sand, immediately come to mind when thinking about tracking. These natural trackers can tell from marks in the sand the species of the animal, its sex, the age of the track, the speed at which it travelled, whether it was alone, injured and even what it had been eating. This information is important for determining whether a trail is worth pursuing or not.

The value of tracking in modern policing

Today, science plays such an important role in modern policing that a differentiation between the two is unthinkable. If the art of tracking is described as the origin of science, its practical applications in modern policing should be explored with specific reference to the functions of the police.

The value of tracking in the prevention of crime can not be underestimated. Trackers possess unique capabilities that enable them to distinguish clues of prior human presence that are often overlooked by others. They have exceptional skills and the ability to intercept offenders before they commit crime. Dedicated patrols by trained trackers will not only increase police visibility, but will also increase the chances of detecting the presence of would-be poachers, stock thieves or other criminals.

Crime intelligence can be seen as the life blood of effective policing, particularly in the prevention of crime. Trackers can be useful in providing crime intelligence regarding the modus operandi of criminals as well as the profiles of potential victims and of criminals. Information of possible escape and access routes, as well as crime trends can be made available by trackers.
In the combating of crime, trackers can play a vital role when it comes to tracking and arresting suspects as well as tracking and locating lost persons. They can also be useful in finding lost and stolen goods.

Tracking plays an important role in the investigation of crime as experienced trackers can provide investigating officers with valuable information that can be useful to reconstrue a crime scene, find leads, gather evidence and prove whether a complaint or claim is true or false.

The value of tracking in maintaining public order, in protecting and securing the residents of South Africa and their property and in upholding and enforcing the law cannot be underestimated. Effective policing in some rural areas is limited and in many cases non-existent due to a lack of mobility. Due to their physical capabilities, trackers can move with ease in otherwise inaccessible areas. Trackers have on many occasions proven to be successful in tracking down armed gangs, recovering illegal firearms and restoring order in areas where faction-fighting was rife.

Faction-fighting usually occurs in rural areas where normal policing methods are unsuccessful. Trackers have shown their ability to restore order in these areas. In areas where normal policing is hampered due to the topography, trackers have the ability to restrict the movement of armed gangs and to recover illegal firearms and stolen stock. They can track down and arrest illegal immigrants who cross the border and they can provide a visible policing presence in rural or inaccessible areas.

Characteristics of a tracker

To master the art of tracking, trackers must have certain characteristics. They often have to work under difficult circumstances that can be physically and psychologically demanding. To be a successful tracker, a person must have a lively interest in tracking, excellent observational skills and a strong desire to become a tracker. Besides exceptionally good eyesight, which is vital for observing specific signs, all other senses also play a role. An outstanding characteristic of a good tracker is a strong, enquiring mind and curiosity.

Tracking involves the assimilation of vast quantities of track information. A sign that might seem useless at a specific time, can be very important later. Therefore trackers must have the ability to memorise details that can be recalled later. Good trackers are constantly aware of what's happening in the environment and can notice any changes from the natural state. They are aware of the pattern of undisturbed nature and can determine the age of a track by taking "nature's watch" into account.
Trackers must make logical conclusions and assumptions based on track information. To anticipate and predict a person's movement requires a good deal of sound reasoning and intuition.

Trackers must work from the principle that no person can pass through an area without leaving evidence. Although trackers must gather information and find the track as quickly as possible, a good deal of patience is needed to gather sufficient evidence. Perseverance is important when the track is difficult to follow. A tracker must be very patient when the track is lost or the terrain is difficult to work on.

Knowledge of animal and human behaviour is important to trackers. Signs left by animals can provide trackers with information about the age of the track. Knowledge of the behaviour of certain animals can also alert trackers about the presence of humans.

Trackers must be physically fit as they have to follow a track rapidly on any type of terrain and in all weather conditions. Fatigue results in a loss of concentration and alertness that may lead to unaccomplished goals.

Tracking is all about teamwork. Good teamwork results in quick realisation of goals. A tracking team consists of one or two trackers, two flanks (who look if tracks turn in other directions) and one controller. When a track is lost there are certain techniques that the team uses to get back on it. These techniques are very effective.

What is a "spoor"?

According to Louis Liebenberg, the term "spoor" is generally associated with footprints left by humans or animals, but it has a wider meaning in tracking. Spoor can be described as any changes from the natural state which indicate the prior presence of somebody or something on or above ground surface. Therefore spoor is categorised as aerial or ground spoor.

A ground spoor can be described as changes in the natural state on the ground surface such as clear footprints, fragments of footprints and disturbances on the ground surface. An aerial spoor is found above the ground surface and can be described as changes in the natural state above ground surface up to the height of a subject's reach. Signs are tufts of material on fences, broken cobwebs, absence of dew on plants early in the morning etc.

Gathering of spoor information

The gathering of spoor information is the first and certainly one of the most important steps in tracking. This information will enable the tracker to get a clear picture as to what has happened and to devise strategies that will ensure success. The gathering of spoor information is an ongoing process as information is gathered before, during and after tracking. Spoor information may include signs found at the scene such as footprints. While following the track, more spoor information can be gathered if looking at signs that can give information about the movement and activities of the persons. Spoor information may include information about the terrain in relation to the incident, such as roads and surrounding dwellings. Reports by witnesses or complainants and reports of arrested suspects can also be part of spoor information.

Recognition of signs

Due to the fact that trackers have developed an awareness of the environment, they have the ability to recognise signs. They know the pattern of undisturbed nature and any change in this natural state indicates the prior presence of a person. According to a popular misconception, nature is "like an open book" to the expert tracker and such an expert needs only enough skill to "read everything that is written in the sand". A more appropriate analogy would be that the expert tracker must be able to "read between the lines".

To interpret tracks and signs, trackers must project themselves into the position of the suspect in order to create a hypothetical explanation of what the suspect has been doing. Tracking is not strictly empirical, since it also involves the tracker's imagination.

One may argue that this science is not only a product of objective observation of the world through perception through the senses; it is also the product of human imagination. A creative hypothesis is not found or discovered in the outside world - it comes from within the human mind.

Trackers look at various things to recognise a sign. Things such as flattening where the levelling of leaves, twigs, rocks or soil is caused by footgear pressing on the ground under the weight of a person. Regular lines can be any shape pressed in the ground, leaving marks that are not normally found in nature, such as the butt of a gun, the outer edges of footgear etc. These can also provide clues to the trackers. Difference in colour or texture from the surrounded area that is caused when footgear or other parts of the body come in contact with soil, stones etc can give an indication that a person has passed through that area. The disturbance of things can be seen as the rearrangement of objects such as the dislodgement of twigs or stones, breaks in fallen branches and twigs and fallen petals and leaves. Tufts of clothing, bloodstains, hair, cigarette butts etc. These can all be evidence that indicates prior presence of a person.

Other signs to be on the lookout for can include odours, such as urine, or the smell from disturbed plants and food. Urine and faeces can for instance give an indication of the age of the spoor. Environmental sounds such as alarm calls of birds like the grey loerie (kwêvoël) can indicate the presence of people or can give away the presence of the tracker.

Systematic tracking

Systematic tracking can be described as the step-by-step following of a spoor that involves a careful observation of all signs in order to gather detailed information on a person's movements or activities. Systematic tracking is mostly applied in a difficult terrain. This process is time-consuming, but it limits the chance of losing the spoor or missing crucial evidence.

Speculative tracking

Speculative tracking is based on assumptions made by the tracker on a person's movements and activities. If speculative tracking is combined with a tracker's experience and knowledge of human behaviour, the tracker can predict a person's actions. Speculative tracking can be useful on both easy or difficult terrain, depending on the circumstances.

Stealth tracking

When a spoor is followed in such a way that the tracker's own presence is unknown to the fleeing suspect, it is referred to as stealth tracking. It can only be done if the tracker moves as quietly as possible and uses of cover. Stealth tracking is of importance when following suspects is deemed dangerous.

Who should attend the tracker course?

Previously the course was presented to members of the Special Task Force, members of POP and dog handlers. Currently any member, even those in the Community Service Centre can attend this course and use it to the advantage of the police station. When the member returns to the police station at the end of the course, s/he will be able to utilise this knowledge at a crime scene.

Attendance of this course is voluntary.

Tracking course

Police members from all over the country attend the tracking course in Limpopo at Appingendam, an SAPS training facility. Here they are exposed to many types of terrain, as tracking techniques vary from terrain to terrain.

SERVAMUS visited the Sterk River Training Centre of the SANDF, near Mokopane (Potgietersrus) where 19 police members (including 7 women) were busy with the 33-day tracking course. This was the second course where women were trained as trackers. Earlier this year the first three women made history by finishing the tracking course.

Listening to what the course delegates had to do during the course, made it clear that they had to be relatively fit. Capt Bonzi, one of the instructors, said that after a member has applied to go on a tracking course, s/he will receive his/her call-up instructions. In these instructions members are told to bring training clothes, so they can use their logic and start to get fit. Otherwise "we will get them fit". Attention is given to fitness, as tracking requires that members work on their feet - walking and searching for signs and tracks, often for very long periods, and still keep concentrating.

During the first week of the course the course delegates attend lectures and are also introduced to some practical work. During the second week they learn how to follow simple tracks. Potential trackers learn to be observant and to make conclusions. At the majority of crime scenes certain signs can be found as people almost always leave signs of their presence. For instance, at an armed robbery, signs where the firearm has possibly been put down or a suspect's weight can be determined by looking at the depth of the track.

During the second and third week, the tracks become more difficult to follow and attention is also give to shooting techniques. Students are also trained in map reading, GPS training and tracking in urban areas.

After their week of training at the Sterk River Training Centre, they return to Appingendam to prepare for their final assessment, where their tracking abilities are tested as teams and as individuals. Their shooting and observation skills are also tested.

With a lot of individual attention, the six instructors ensure that a strong foundation in tracking is laid.

SERVAMUS interviewed some of the trainees: Const Colyn from the National Intervention Unit (NIU) in Durban said that they regularly work in rural areas and that tracking can be valuable to trace suspects. Insp Ngcwabane and Sgt Mokwana, both from the NIU in Umtata, feel that more police members should attend this course as it is important to know how to follow tracks and to follow suspects. One of the women, Const Nakeng from the Area Crime Combating Unit (ACCU) in Polokwane, is proud of herself and the other women on course. "When I go home, I am going to tell all the females to do it. It is a nice course." Two other females, Const Olckers and Const Van Schalkwyk also from ACCU Polokwane said that it was an interesting course and that one learned a lot. This course can be used in everyday policing work. "I always wanted to do it," Const Olckers said. Const Nel from NIU Pretoria said that there were no trackers at his Unit and that he wanted to set an example to members at the Unit so that more of them would attend this course. "To be a good tracker one must be able to observe well and one has to be fit," he said.

Although a 10-day refreshing course is presented once a year, trackers must constantly strive to get better and better. Tracking becomes a way of living as trackers will always be on the lookout for signs on the ground, the way people walk, etc.

Louis' Cybertracker helps to catch criminals

Louis Liebenberg, who, as said earlier, is seen as one of the best trackers in Southern Africa, has spent most of his life studying tracks in the sand. Supt Dykes said: "Louis is the author of several books on tracking and I have had the honour to meet him personally." Louis went to perfect his skills amongst the best trackers in the world - the masters - the Bushmen of the Kalahari. Here he learned the lessons passed on to them by their ancestors and the stories told by the tracks in the sand. He realised that the Bushmen get an enormous amount of detailed information from animal tracks. In their mind, an "encyclopaedia" of animal movements is built up and if someone could capture this information, it would be extremely valuable to wildlife conservation as well as scientific research on animal behaviour. Sadly, our best trackers can not read or write. During his research he realised that the ancient art of tracking is dying, as the traditional hunting grounds of the Bushmen, and therefore their need to track animals, is diminishing.

Due to his academic background, Louis saw a way to revive the science of tracking so that it would benefit conservation: Louis also devised a system whereby the ancient tracking skills of the San could be used to revolutionise wildlife management and research into animal behaviour. By touching icons on a hand-held computer, trackers in game parks can record their observations in minute detail, giving park authorities access to constantly updated data about animal movements, feeding behaviour, territorial markings etc.

This small computer is not only valuable in conservation but also shows its effectiveness in policing. "For some time I have been toying with the idea to combine the art of tracking with modern technology. The idea was strengthened when I read an article where Louis Liebenberg from the Noordhoek area in Cape Town did exactly that," said Supt Dykes.

When Louis Liebenberg settled in the Noordhoek area of Cape Town, he did not know that the Cybertracker tool he had developed for following wild animals would become a powerful crime-fighting tool. The ancient skills, combined with new technology, put an end to attacks at a popular tourist beach. When he heard about the Noordhoek beach attacks, he offered his help to the police. The police were sceptical at first as they did not understand what Bushmen and wild animals had to do with catching criminals. He went on his own to the area where the attacks had taken place and what he saw allowed him to plot the movements of the attackers on a digital map. It took him approximately 10 months to convince the police of what he could do. He took a police inspector with him to see what he was talking about. Louis Liebenberg photographed shoe prints at the scene of an attack and loaded them onto his hand-held computer. Plotting the assailants' movements using satellite positioning, and using his computer software to make predictions, enabled him to provide vital information about where the muggers came from, where they had gone and how they operated. Once the criminals' spoor had been identified, officers waited for the next attack. The spoor of these people was tracked to the bush and a modus operandi was compiled. Louis was able to track the spoor, and determine their approach - where they would lie and wait and how they would operate. He also gave the police a position where they should lie in wait so that they would not be seen by the attackers. The police did not have to wait long for the system to prove itself, as on the first day of their observation, a group of criminals emerged from the bushes - almost exactly where Liebenberg had predicted they would. The shoe prints he had stored on his hand-held computer matched the shoes the robbers were wearing. They could see where the shoes were worn out and where they were broken. Four people were arrested that day. One of the suspects got such a fright that he fled into the ocean and drowned while trying to swim away. The Cybertracker can record vital information on crime scenes, eliminating a large amount of administrative work. Data can then be analysed, producing information that the police could use to predict how criminals may operate.

Conclusion

In many other spheres the value of tracking has already been recognised. Apart from nature conservation as well as research and development, the society is benefitting socially, economically and culturally from the art of tracking, and so can the police. Supt Dykes said that it is interesting to note that the value of tracking skills is increasingly recognised in developed countries like the USA.

Tracking is a specialised skill that can, with the necessary interest, be learned and mastered. Once the art of tracking has been mastered, the tracker will be able to "read" the signs to draw logical conclusions. The value of tracking in modern policing can not be underestimated as it can play an important role in South Africa with its unique crime situation. Not only can trackers be used in the bush to find the tracks of stock thieves or game poachers, but also in urban areas where tracks of suspects in housebreakings have to be followed. Currently there are less than 60 trackers in the police, but if one looks at all the benefits tracking has to offer, more trackers have to be trained for the police.