This article was originally published in The Bushcraft & Survival Skills Magazine in September 2019
The ‘Tracker’, it’s an evocative word conjuring a kaleidoscope of images of frontier life, indigenous tribes and man hunters. Stick the word Cyber in front of it however and the imagery becomes one of pale people locked indoors staring at screens. In fact, and despite the name, the CyberTracker system is all about solid naturalist field skills developed initially to preserve a wealth of disappearing knowledge and to aid conservation efforts.
The system was born in the Kalahari in the early 1990’s where significant changes in land management lead to the majority of the local bushman people being unable to continue their traditional hunter gatherer lifestyles. Enter the very remarkable Louis Liebenberg, fascinated by tracking and aboriginal life from an early age who was tasked to promote and preserve the phenomenal tracking and naturalist skills of the indigenous people, which with the decline of the traditional way of life faced the very real possibility of disappearing entirely. He developed a data capturing programme which initially worked on hand held computers (now it is available for smart phones). The programme was and still is, icon driven which meant even if the operator is unable to read or write it is easily used. In its simplest application trackers surveying and monitoring wildlife find the track of an animal, press the icon representing that animal and record exactly the location as the system is also linked with GPS. It can be used to monitor presence or absence of rare species, distribution of animals, crossing points across road systems and for a host of other purposes. This is the cyber part of CyberTracker and not something that is employed quite so much in the northern hemisphere. Many countries have alternative systems for recording wildlife, the UK for example has ‘I record’ https://www.brc.ac.uk/irecord/ which can be accessed by anyone and is linked to our national biodiversity network. In many countries including the UK it is the tracker part of CyberTracker that we focus on.
It was soon realised that being born in the bush is no guarantee of tracking ability, the skill does have to be learned. If inaccurate data was imputed into the system, then fairly rapidly credibility and belief would fade. With this in mind a way of measuring the ability of trackers through a very clever evaluation process was developed. This was split into two areas for track and sign interpretation and trailing or following the animal. This was further divided into standard and specialist evaluations, but more of that later.
The first evaluation was held in Thornybush game reserve in the Kruger national park in 1994. The system has rapidly spread across South Africa and beyond because it gives an incredibly accurate assessment of a trackers ability. It is now used in several areas to qualify trackers for eco-tourism, conservation, scientific research and a host of other fields. Today the objectives of CyberTracker reflect these applications.
- 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.
CyberTracker made its way to the Northern hemisphere through the efforts of another remarkable man Mark Elbroch. Mark is a tracker, author and mountain lion biologist who together with Louis introduced the system to North America in 2005 for all the reasons already mentioned and its growth became rapid and was noticed by trackers in the UK and Europe. Mark was invited over to the UK in 2012 by Woodsmoke (as was) in the Lake District and simultaneously by me. The first track and sign and trailing evaluations in Northern Europe were held in West Sussex hosted by Woodcraft School with a second immediately afterwards in Cumbria. These evaluations have continued every year since then in the UK and also in Holland and Germany and continue to spread out to other countries year by year.
From a personal perspective having been a keen tracker for years two things really stood out in those early evaluations. In the track and sign it was the level of detail, not just whose track are we looking at but left and right, hind or front, how is the animal moving etc. The most striking thing about trailing was the absolute certainty in which the evaluators expected to catch up with the animals.
The evaluation process
Track and sign
I have been teaching since 1994 and the evaluation process is without doubt the most effective educational and assessment tool I have ever come across. In track and sign a number of questions are asked, somewhere in the region of 50 over 2 days. These questions are weighted to penalise a candidate more for answering easy questions wrong and penalised less for answering hard questions wrong. So, an easy question would give 1 point for a correct answer but a loss of 3 for an incorrect, a difficult question would give 2 points for a correct answer but take 2 points away for an incorrect answer. Very difficult questions take 1 point away for an incorrect answer but give 3 points towards the score for a correct one. There are also extremely difficult questions asked which if answered incorrectly don’t affect the score at all and can only add to the tally.
This system recognises that any tracker regardless of experience can make a mistake, especially with difficult tracks, but is still a very good tracker and should be recognised as such. Examples of easy questions are tracks that cannot be confused with anything else perhaps because they are very clear, or of a distinct size. Difficult question may be partly obscured, uncommon or confusable. Very difficult question may be very small, easily confused or ask the candidate to interpret behaviour.
In the standard evaluation there are a good mix of the three levels of question and is conducted by one evaluator. A score of 69%-79% leads to a level 1, 80%-89% a level 2, 90%-99% a level 3 and 100% is a level 4.
The Specialist evaluation follows a similar format except that all the questions are of a difficult/very difficult standard and two evaluators need to be present to quality assure these levels. Scoring a 100% at specialist level gains the candidate the status of track and sign specialist.
The questions are asked to everyone in the group consisting of no more that 10 people and after everyone has given their answer (confidentially), the sign is discussed. This is where a good deal of learning takes place and because of this thorough debrief even someone with no real experience will gain a lot from taking an evaluation. So long as the certification isn’t foremost in the mind the process can be treated like a workshop.
Pretty much anything goes in a track and sign evaluation and questions may be asked on mammals, birds, reptiles, insects or people especially if any of the sign that might be considered by a newcomer as not really tracking, can be confused with wildlife sign.
The trailing evaluation is scored in a similar way and with the same levels recognised, it is also divided into standard and specialist evaluation requiring either one or two evaluators to be present. The main difference is that feedback is given at the end so to undertake an evaluation the candidate really needs to be able to hold the trail to some extent at least to take part. To gain the highest levels in trailing the candidate must guide the evaluator to an animal which should be seen from a reasonably close distance without being alerted.
Trailing works on three levels, systematic tracking is following, not necessarily every foot print but enough sign to convince the tracker that the trail is going where he or she thinks it is going. Speculative tracking is employed to “guess” the most likely path taken by the animal and predictive tracking is really about the trackers ability to judge where that animal is on the landscape at that particular moment. Jumping between all of these techniques coupled with a good knowledge of animal behaviour, aging tracks, wind movement and stealth hopefully leads to a close encounter. Two great trailing expressions to hold on to are “trailing is about finding animals, not finding tracks” and “good trailing is about using tracks to confirm where you think the animal is”.
The Tracker certificate
These certificates are awarded to candidates who have taken both track and sign and trailing evaluations. It combines the levels of both but takes the lowest score for certification. A level 2 trailer with a level 3 track and sign would become a level 2 tracker. Should that person up their trailing to level 3 they become a level 3 tracker. A level 4 in both disciplines becomes a Professional Tracker and a specialist in both disciplines becomes a Senior Tracker.
I believe tracking has great future today in the UK not just as a recreational tool although it is an excellent vehicle to bring people closer to nature. It is currently underused in the field of wildlife monitoring and surveying. This is a shame as there are numerous papers written which can attest to its effectiveness. I will leave you with a story of a recent trip I took to Washington state in the USA to stay with friend and fellow tracker Brian McConnell. We spent a day with Mark Elbroch on one of his mountain lion projects on the Olympic Peninsula which illustrates how traditional skills of tracking can augment modern survey techniques. Mark has a number of lions that are radio collared and so can be tracked by GPS. When signals from the collars are static or clustered it often indicates a kill site. Mark and his team of trackers, myself and Brian on this occasion, spent the day visiting sites of GPS clusters to gather additional information. The format for such visits is as follows, once the area is located traditional tracking skills are employed to gather as much information as possible. The age, health and species of prey animal can be determined. Trails can be followed, and latrines located and scats sampled for DNA. The presence of other animals feeding on the kill can be determined and if the lion was alone or in a group. Locations or the most effective placement of cameras can also be chosen. On this particular occasion it was hugely rewarding to find where the cat had taken a deer out its bed, rolled the deer and then dragged it into the undergrowth to feed.
Mark will employ CyberTracker trained trackers over those with academic qualifications such is the strength of the system. This is often not the case in Northern Europe which is a shame considering the evaluation process was designed to test observer reliability.
Before you go any further down this page there are a series of track pictures on the right hand side of this page the answers to these questions are below the photos.
I have also scored them as if they where evaluation questions just for fun hope you enjoy so you can add points or take them away
- Q1 otter difficult +2 -2
- Q2 Lizard very difficult +3 -1
- Q3 Crow track difficult +2 -2
- Q4 Foot very difficult +3 -1
- Q5 Rabbit front feet very difficult +3 -1
- Q6 Predated difficult +2 -2
- Q7 Dog full gallop difficult +2 -2
- Q8 Goose difficult +2 -2
- Q9 Natterjack toad very difficult +3 -1
- Q10 Badger easy +1 -3
- Q11 Badger easy +1 -3
- Q12 Dog Easy +1 -3