Karel Benade, affectionately known as Pokkie, is a Master Tracker and Head Trainer at the Tracker Academy in the SA College for Tourism. Today he takes a new group of students out for a bushwalk. He will spend the coming 5 months with them in the veld (bush), teaching them the basics on the ground including tracking, identifying tracks, naming plants, understanding scat (animal droppings), and signs of animal behaviour.

After this amount of time together, Pokkie becomes a father figure for many of the trackers, passing on his deep knowledge of the landscape’s flora and fauna as a father might once have done to his son.

This is the same way that Alex van der Heever, General Manager of the Tracker Academy, himself learnt the skills, from another world-renowned expert, Reinas Mhlongo. Unfortunately, due to rapid urbanisation, traditional tracking skills have fast disappeared all across the world. But the SA College for Tourism’s Tracker Academy is fighting back. Understanding the natural environment, learning how to track animals and read the landscape requires immense intellectual as well as creative ability. But these are skills that can be taught, and Pokkie and others like him at the Academy pass on a lifetime of learning to the latest recruits.

Pokkie describes how to tell an animal by its scat or dung. An eland, for example, has large scat made of leaves and grass. He can estimate the age of the dung by how dry it is which tells him how much time has passed since the animal was in an area. He can also tell whether an animal was on its own or had company. What might look like a few lines in the sand to most, turns out to be a fascinating story about a jackal marking its territory.

Sometimes the secrets are quite amusing. A small heap of soil on the ground lying next to a hole might well be the sign of an aardvark digging out ants to eat. As it drags the soil in between its legs it is fairly easy to work out whether it was a male or female aardvark at work. If the heap of soil has a little dent in it, it’s the sign of a male, as the round markings are the press of its testicles into the soil!

By examining the landscape and by paying close attention to things most of us would overlook, Pokkie brings the bush and its secrets to life. These essential skills are invaluable to eco-tourism, wildlife protection, animal monitoring and habituation programmes. As well as working with tourists on game walks tracking the animals, trackers are also trained to track humans and form part of anti-poaching teams. So, trackers are vital to the work the Peace Parks Foundation is doing to restore Africa’s wild spaces for wildlife and humankind.