Being on safari in southern Africa gets you up close to wildlife which many say is a life-changing experience. Being on foot with a knowledgeable guide is even more immersive. However, its success relies on the knowledge and expertise of the wildlife trackers.

A man who recognises the value of this knowledge is Alex van den Heever, who started his own conservation career as a safari guide at Londolozi Private Game Reserve where he became friends with one of the greatest wildlife trackers in the world, Renias Mhlongo. Reinas was the inspiration for founding the Tracker Academy within the SA College for Tourism, a not-for-profit organisation.

Renias was born in the wild and remote eastern part of South Africa. Together, he and Alex took guests into the bush searching for wildlife including leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo. Alex realised that the way Renias learnt to become a tracker and a naturalist was fading. He wanted to preserve these ancient tracking skills and pass on the magic and wonder they can bring to those keen to understand more about African wildlife.

Finding his vision shared by Gaynor Rupert, chair of the SA College for Tourism, he poured his passion and knowledge into setting up the Tracker Academy there for disadvantaged rural people to learn the ancient skill of tracking. The course covers topics such as tree and plant identification, birds and alarm calls, track and sign interpretation and so on. Students become professionals in a once dying art that still has relevance in modern conservation efforts. And the Academy’s success speaks for itself, with 94 per cent of graduates now in permanent employment.

Head Trainer and Master Tracker, Pokkie Benade, another expert in this field, spends months with the trainee students passing on his knowledge. He can explain which animal has been at the sweet thorn tree, pointing out bite marks that he recognises as being from, for example, a black rhino. Or he can tell a complete story simply by studying a few tracks in the sand, showing where a kudu passed through early morning before the sun came up.