It is not only animals in the bush that have hidden lives. Plants too conceal all kinds of properties and carry signs of the histories of animals’ daily lives. On a bush walk with Siewert Groenewald, the Commercial and Financial Portfolio Manager for Peace Parks, Master Tracker Pokkie points out the fascinating stories he sees from paying attention to the bushes and plants around him.

According to Pokkie, Head Trainer at the Tracker Academy in the SA College for Tourism, the smaller ‘kankerbos’ – cancer bush/sutherlandia – that grows near the ground is very good for treating cancer. If you’re in the early stages of cancer he claims that drinking a tea made from that particular bush every morning and evening is helpful. He drinks it combined with a herb called ‘dasbos’ and attributes to it his good health as well the easing of some the pain in his rheumatic arm.

Pokkie also examines the plants’ branches for signs of animal presence. When a rhino bites off a piece of branch, for example, the bite is locally called ’45 degrees’, because of the particular angle the black rhino takes. It easily identifies where a black rhino has been feeding. An elephant, on the other hand, chews on the branches themselves, leaving a completely different set of markings. Meanwhile, baboons pull bark off certain trees to look for insects or worm hiding underneath, so spotting loosened or discarded bark lying around will show that they’ve been around. That is their tell-tale trait.

Reading the stories from the bush requires great skill, observation as well as a willing attitude. How else will one discover that the wild asparagus roots are quite tasty, especially when it has been raining? What to most of us looks like a bush on some sandy terrain, to Pokkie is the beginning of an encounter with a porcupine. He can identify where a porcupine chewed on the stem of a wild asparagus, where the animal selected the juicy parts and discarded the rest. Pokkie can rootle around to find the thick, watery bulbs that the porcupine was unable to dig up, and which will survive another day.

The students who are trained at the Tracker Academy learn by being out in the bush alongside master trackers like Pokkie. This is the only way to learn what is an indigenous art form that evolved to aid human survival, and a skill that relies on observation of, and reading the landscape. It is much like learning a new language, where the alphabet consists of signs and symbols such as animal prints, impressions left in the sand, trails of dung. Immersed in the landscape, students also learn lessons in conservation, how to identify plants and trees for medicinal purposes and much, much more.

Werner Myburgh, CEO of Peace Parks Foundation, is on the board of the SA College for Tourism, and firmly believes in the importance of bringing back these ancient skills and the benefits that they can bring to communities and tourism in the future. What is impressive about the Tracker Academy’s success is that, at the time of its launch, there were no schools offering training or qualifications in wildlife tracking. They provided the first programme accredited by the South African Education Authority. Last year, the Academy celebrated its 10th anniversary, with 150 unemployed men and women already trained with an invaluable skill and most now in permanent conservation jobs.