Tag Archives: Kalahari



CyberTracker fuses ancient knowledge with cutting-edge technology

By Nancy Bazilchuk

July 2008, Conservation Magazine

In 2003, trained trackers combing the rich jungles in the Republic of Congo’s Lossi Sanctuary for gorillas and chimpanzees stumbled upon a disturbing trend. Duikers, dog-sized antelopes that weave and dive through the jungle’s dense undergrowth, were dying at an astounding rate—local indices dropped 50 percent compared to a 2000 census. Gorillas and chimpanzees were dying at similar rates. Blood tests confirmed the culprit was the deadly virus Ebola. The surprise was that no one had previously known that Ebola killed antelopes.

Yet there was no doubt the terrible data were real. The findings were based on hundreds of observations precisely mapped with CyberTracker software. CyberTracker allows hand-held computers to use stylized images instead of text for data entry. Its heart is a menu of icons that depict whatever elements researchers choose. Trackers need only select a pre-programmed image that matches what they see—a grazing antelope, a carabid beetle—and with one tap, the observation is recorded and paired with geographic coordinates via a Global Positioning System (GPS) link. Trackers hardly have to break stride as they work, which allows enormous numbers of data points to be amassed with little effort. The information can be downloaded to a computer and immediately mapped, thus enabling scientists to make real-time observations about trends, such as the ones from Lossi Sanctuary that showed duiker declines.

The program’s greatest strength, and the feature that sets it apart from its competitors, is its ability to transcend language and culture because of its reliance on images, not words, for data entry.

CyberTracker creator Louis Liebenberg, a South African scientist and author, first came up with the idea in 1996 while tracking with a group of Kalahari Bushmen. Liebenberg realized that he could help save the Bushmen’s rapidly disappearing knowledge if he could find a way to help trackers, who could neither read nor write, record their observations. Thus CyberTracker was born.

CyberTracker’s biggest impact has been in South Africa’s national park system. Kruger National Park official Judith Kruger says that rangers use 110 hand-held computers daily to record sightings on patrol—everything from broken fences to elephant-damaged trees to invertebrates. Liebenberg and two rangers from South Africa’s Karoo National Park used it to document seasonal shifts in black rhino feeding behavior. And CyberTracker is being used to record garbage found littering beaches in Gabon as a way to persuade source nations to help clean up. The program allows for remarkable precision: one 500-m-long section of shoreline in Loango National Park was covered with 535 plastic water bottles and 560 flip-flops among more than 3,000 bits of trash.

The software is free and has been downloaded by more than 6,000 people since it was first made available on the Internet in 2000. About 500 users from 30 countries have registered the software—from the entire Spanish National Park Service to a multinational research group in the Arctic to individual trackers in the U.S. With the help of a 2-million-Euro (approximately US$2 million) grant from the European Commission and Conservation International, Liebenberg is developing the next generation of Cyber-Tracker. Three versions will offer increasingly complex programming features along with conservation-specific analysis tools to allow the calculation of standard measures such as Patrol Effort or Index of Abundance.

Liebenberg says the biggest benefit has been to give an authoritative, scientific “voice” to skilled trackers in Africa who can’t otherwise share their knowledge because they can’t write. Karel Benadie is a ranger and expert rhino tracker who worked with Lieben-berg in Karoo National Park. He told Liebenberg that his inability to write down his rhino observations meant “the PhDs would never listen to him before,” Liebenberg said. With Cyber-Tracker, “Now they do.”

More on the Tracker: www.cybertracker.co.za

Liebenberg, L. et al. 1999. Rhino tracking with the CyberTracker field computer. Pachyderm 27:59-61.

Leroy, E. et al. 2004. Multiple Ebola virus transmission events and rapid decline of Central African wildlife. Science 303:387-390.

About the Author
Nancy Bazilchuk is a freelance writer based in Trondheim, Norway.

The Kudu Chase

ImageLone Tree, Central Kalahari, August 29, 1990.

We had been hunting for two weeks with no luck. It was at the end of the dry season and the dry grass made it difficult to stalk close enough to animals to get a good shot with a bow and arrow. That morning we were tracking a healthy kudu bull. By midday we caught up with it, but again it ran away. This was when !Nate (photo), Kayate and Boroh//xao decided to run it down. It was an extremely hot day and conditions were ideal for persistence hunting. !Nam!kabe, who was too old to run far, went back to our camp with all our unnecessary weight – bows and arrows, digging sticks, clubs and my camera equipment. They told me to go back with !Nam!kabe, because no white man can run down a kudu in such heat. But I insisted that I had to run with them so that I can see how they do it.

So we drank our fill, emptying the water bottles before setting off at a stiff pace. Even at the outset my boots felt heavy and I found it difficult to keep up the pace in the sandy terrain. At times they would run away from me, but when they lost the spoor and were delayed in looking for the spoor I managed to catch up with them. At times they would fan out, each hunter making a prediction of where he thought the kudu was heading, so that if the kudu followed a curved path, one of them would gain an advantage by taking a short cut. The others would then cut back to catch up with the one who picked up the spoor.

Boroh//xao was the first to drop out and start walking. I managed to keep up with !Nate while Kayate had increased his pace and was pulling away from us. When we got to some thick bush, however, I lost sight of !Nate who was about a hundred meters ahead of me. The terrain was difficult in places and several times I lost the trail. In the process Boroh//xao had caught up with me again, and since I was quite exhausted by that time, decided to follow the trail with him at a fast walking pace.

As we followed the tracks I could visualise the whole event unfolding in front of me. The kudu started to show signs of hyperthermia. It was kicking up sand and its stride was getting shorter. As it ran from shade to shade, the distances between its resting periods became shorter and shorter. In visualising the kudu I projected myself into its situation. Concentrating on the spoor I was so caught up in the event that I was completely unaware of my own state of exhaustion. As if in an almost trance-like state I could not only see how the kudu was leaping from one set of tracks to the next, but in my body I could actually feel how the kudu was moving. In a sense it felt as if I myself actually became the kudu, as if I myself was leaping from one set of tracks to the next.

Every time Kayate and !Nate caught up with it, it would run away, leaving them behind. But while it accelerated from its resting position and stop to rest again, the hunters were running at a constant pace. The distinctively human sweating apparatus and relative hairlessness give the hunters an advantage by keeping their bodies cool in the midday heat. But in the process they risk becoming dehydrated. The hunters therefore have to know their bodies and measure their own condition against that of the kudu. If they run too fast, they will exhaust themselves or overheat, but if they do not run fast enough, they will never exhaust or overheat the kudu. They must run fast enough not to allow the kudu too much time to rest, which is when the kudu cools down, restoring core body temperature.

We could see from the spoor that Kayate had dropped out and that only !Nate was chasing it. Boroh//xao pointed to the moon and said that the kudu will get away, because the moon was out in daylight. But by this time the kudu seemed to be so exhausted that I insisted that we should carry on. At one point a cold shiver went through my whole body and for the first time I realised that I was dragging my feet in the sand. Some times my legs buckled under me and I would stumble over branches, but through intense concentration on the spoor it was as if though my mind was simply dragging my body along.

!Nate had picked up his pace and was closing in on the kudu. With the kudu showing signs of severe exhaustion or overheating, !Nate broke into a sprint, running in front of the kudu and keeping it from getting into the shade. At the same time he tried to cut in front of it to chase it back to Kayate.

When we finally caught up with !Nate and Kayate, they were on their way back to the camp. When I asked !Nate where the kudu was, he told me that it got away. When he saw the disappointment on my face he laughed at me, telling me that the kudu was not very far. I asked if I could drink the stomach water of the kudu to quench my thirst. I had drunk the stomach water of gemsbok on a previous hunt, and although it tasted like rotting grass soup, it was not too bad. At this stage I was so thirsty that taste was not much of a concern. But !Nate said that I would die if I drank it, because the kudu was feeding on a leaf that is poisonous to humans.

As we started to walk back to our camp, my mind relaxed and I was suddenly overcome by a sense of total exhaustion. My legs were weak and shaky and my mouth was dry. I asked !Nate if there were any succulent roots I could dig up, but he replied that it did not rain in that part of the Kalahari for a long time and that there were no water.

Half way back to the camp I realised that my armpits were bone dry. I had stopped sweating – the first symptoms of heat stroke. As the implications of my situation dawned upon me, I experienced an overwhelming sinking sensation – as if the vast dry Kalahari was like an endless ocean and I was sinking down deeper and deeper.

I found myself in a desperate situation. I had to get into the shade to cool down my body, but at the same time I had to get water as soon as possible. If I dehydrated any further and my body overheated because I no longer produced sweat to cool down, I could die very rapidly. !Nate, who had been watching me closely, realised that I was in serious trouble. He told me that he will run back to our camp and ask !Nam!kabe to bring me water.

After resting in the shade for a while, Kayate urged me to walk further, because the camp was still very far and the sun was going down. Once it got dark, !Nam!kabe will not be able to follow !Nate’s tracks back to find us. Walking very slowly, I experienced the ultimate sense of helplessness. My life depended totally on !Nate. If I tried to walk too fast I could kill myself, yet I had to try and make as much progress as possible because if I did not get water soon I could also die. Every now and then I would rest in the shade, and after a while Kayate would urge me on again.

After what seemed to be an eternity the sight of !Nam!kabe carrying several water bottles created an incredible sense of relief. But I still had a long way to go. !Nam!kabe explained that I must not drink a lot of water, because if I drank too much water too quickly I could die. I first had to wash my face and wet my hair to cool down my head. When you suffer from heat stroke you will die if your brain overheats. Only after cooling my head could I take small sips of water, slowly taking in water over an extended period of time.

Later !Nate told me that he also stopped sweating by the time he reached the camp. When he chased the kudu, after everyone else had dropped out, his timing was so fine that had he chased the kudu just a short distance further, he could have killed himself. He risked his own life to save my life.

It took a while for the significance of this single event to sink in. Apart from the fact that I almost lost my life in the process, my spontaneous spur-of-the-moment decision to run with them resulted in something quite unique. For more than fifty years, the Kalahari Bushmen were amongst the most intensively studied population group. Yet, as far as we know, not a single anthropologist had witnessed the persistence hunt. There have been several anecdotal accounts of persistence hunting, but no one (apart from the Bushmen themselves) had actually witnessed it.

One reason may be that, unlike the bow-and-arrow which draws attention to itself, the persistence hunt requires no weapons. There is therefore no specific weapon or artifact that would prompt an anthropologist to ask hunters about it – and no direct evidence of it in the archaeological record. Unless you already knew about it, it would not occur to you that you should ask hunters about it. /Ui /Ukxa of //Auru village was a young hunter when the Marshall family first arrived in the 1950’s at Nyae Nyae in Namibia. I asked him if anybody have ever asked him about the persistence hunt. He replied: “No, people only asked me about the bow and arrow.” Since nobody asked them, hunters simply never told anthropologists about it.

Persistence hunting was probably one of the first forms of human hunting, yet a tradition that lasted perhaps as long as two million years was only witnessed in the very last decade before it died out. In this book I will show that persistence hunting may have played a critical role in the origin of science.

In 2001 I worked with the BBC to film Karoha Langwane running the persistence hunt for The Life of Mammals, presented by David Attenborough.

Video: The Persistence Hunt

From The Origin of Science (2013) by Louis Liebenberg

The CyberTracker Story

ImageBy Louis Liebenberg

The Origin of Science

CyberTracker has grown from a simple hypothesis: The art of tracking may have been the origin of science. Science may have evolved more than a hundred thousand years ago with the evolution of modern hunter-gatherers. Scientific reasoning may therefore be an innate ability of the human mind. This may have far-reaching implications for indigenous knowledge, citizen science and self-education.

The Persistence Hunt

In 1990 I ran the persistence hunt with !Nate at Lone Tree in the Kalahari. The persistence hunt involves running down an antelope in the mid-day heat on an extremely hot day – chasing the antelope until it drops from heat exhaustion. This may well be one of the oldest forms of hunting, going back two million years ago, long before humans invented bows and arrows. Persistence hunting may have played a critical role in the evolution of the art of tracking and the origin of science.

In 2001 I worked with David Attenborough on the BBC film showing Karoha doing the Persistence Hunt. You can watch Karoha running down a kudu in the video at

Video: The Persistence Hunt

Reviving the Dying Art of Tracking

After running the persistence hunt in 1990 !Nate asked me to help them. They could no longer live as hunter-gathers and needed jobs. Wildlife in the Kalahari has been decimated by fences that cut off migration routes. It was no longer viable to live as hunter-gatherers. And the art of tracking was dying out. After hundreds of thousands of years, traditional tracking skills may soon be lost. Yet tracking can be developed into a new science with far-reaching implications for nature conservation.

We had lengthy discussions around the fire, and it was decided that I should try to find a way to create jobs for trackers. Only by developing tracking into a modern profession, will tracking itself survive into the future. !Nam!kabe agreed that this will be good for the future. But he also had the wisdom to know that it will take a long time. This was for the younger generation, he said, it will not be for him. When he died in 1995 his exceptional tracking expertise was irretrievably lost. He was one of the last of the old generation hunters and one of the best trackers. !Nam!kabe inspired the creation of the Master Tracker certificate – the highest standard of tracking that others could aspire to.

The Tracker Evaluation methodology that I developed provide certification of practical tracking skills, thereby enabling trackers to get jobs in ecotourism, as rangers in anti-poaching units, in wildlife monitoring and scientific research. Tracker evaluations have since 1994 resulted in a steady growth of trackers with increasing levels of tracking skills, thereby reviving tracking as a modern profession.

The Tracker Institute was established as a centre of learning for the highest standards of excellence in the art of tracking and to develop the next generation of Master Trackers. The Tracker Institute is situated in the Thornybush Nature Reserve, providing the opportunity to track lion, leopard, rhino and a wide diversity of species. In addition to providing intensive individual mentoring of practical tracking skills, it will also serve as a research institute.


If the art of tracking was the origin of science, then modern-day trackers should be able to do science. However, some of the best traditional trackers in Africa cannot read or write. To overcome this problem, the CyberTracker software was developed with an icon-based user interface that enabled expert non-literate trackers to record complex geo-referenced observations on animal behaviour.

In 1996 I teamed up with Justin Steventon, a brilliant young computer science student at the University of Cape Town. The CyberTracker user interface was developed with the help of Karel Benadie, a tracker working in the Karoo National Park in South Africa. Together with fellow ranger and tracker James Minye, they tracked the highly endangered Black Rhino, recording their movements and behaviour in minute detail. Together we published a paper on rhino feeding behaviour in the journal Pachyderm. This is perhaps the first paper based on data gathered independently by two non-literate trackers, confirming a hypothesis about rhino feeding behaviour put forward by the trackers. It was a demonstration that non-literate trackers can do science.

In 2008 the Western Kgalagadi Conservation Corridor Project was initiated, funded by Conservation International for a three-year period. Community members from several villages were employed to use the CyberTracker to conduct track counts. This was the first time that !Nate and Karoha were employed in a major research project, enabling them to use their traditional tracking skills, using the CyberTracker, in a modern context.

You can watch Karoha using the CyberTracker in the video at

Video: Tracking in the Cyber Age

Involving scientists and local communities in key areas of biodiversity, CyberTracker combines indigenous knowledge with state-of-the-art computer and satellite technology.

Towards a New Science

From its origins with the Kalahari Bushmen, CyberTracker projects have been initiated to monitor gorillas in the Congo, butterflies in Switzerland, the Sumatran rhino in Borneo, jaguars in Costa Rica, birds in the Amazon, wild horses in Mongolia, dolphins in California, marine turtles in the Pacific and whales in Antarctica.

CyberTracker is being used by indigenous communities, in national parks, scientific research, citizen science, environmental education, forestry, farming, social surveys, health surveys, crime prevention and disaster relief.

The CyberTracker story is captured in the powerful image of Karoha holding the CyberTracker, with his hunting bag slung over his shoulder. The image symbolises the cultural transition from hunter-gatherer to the modern computer age. Persistence hunting may be the most ancient form of hunting, possibly going back two million years, long before the invention of the bow-and-arrow or the domestication of dogs. After two million years, Karoha may well be the last hunter who has been doing the persistence hunt. Yet of all the hunters at Kagcae, Karoha is the most proficient in using the CyberTracker. In Karoha, one individual not only represents one of the most ancient human traditions, but also the future of tracking with computers.

Karoha’s story represents the most profound cultural leap – a story that gives hope for the future: The ancient art of tracking can be revitalized and developed into a new science to monitor the impact of climate change on biodiversity.

At a more fundamental level, it shows us that anyone, regardless of their level of education, whether or not they can read or write, regardless of their cultural background, can make a contribution to science.

A New Vision of Science


In The Origin of Science I address one of the great mysteries of human evolution: How did the human mind evolve the ability to develop science?

The art of tracking may well be the origin of science. Science may have evolved more than a hundred thousand years ago with the evolution of modern hunter-gatherers. Scientific reasoning may therefore be an innate ability of the human mind. This may have far-reaching implications for self-education and citizen science.

The implication of this theory is that anyone, regardless of their level of education, whether or not they can read or write, regardless of their cultural background, can make a contribution to science. Kalahari Bushmen trackers have been employed in modern scientific research using GPS-enabled handheld computers and have co-authored scientific papers. Citizen scientists have made fundamental contributions to science. From a simple observation of a bird captured on a smart phone through to a potential Einstein, some may be better than others, but everyone can participate in science.

Today humanity is becoming increasingly dependent on science and technology for survival, from our dependence on information technology through to solving problems related to energy production, food production, health, climate change and biodiversity conservation. Involving citizens in science may be crucial for the survival of humanity over the next hundred years.

Scientific reasoning was part of hunter-gatherer culture, along with music, storytelling and other aspects of their culture. Science and art should be an integral part of human culture, as it has been for more than a hundred thousand years.

Louis Liebenberg

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