Tag Archives: Louis Liebenberg

Timbavati now home to one of only four Master Trackers in South Africa

ImageNews24 2014-01-30

South Africa – Have you ever thought about the skill it takes (not to mention the guts) to be able to track animals of the wild? We’re talking lions, leopards and pretty much every other animal you can think of.

Lucas Mathonsi from Sgagula, South Africa knows what we’re taking about because he is now one of only four coveted Master Trackers in the world.

Where the story begins:

His story begins as a five-year-old boy who used to accompany his father who was a ranger in the Timbavati reserve. It is here that Lucas Mathonsi was taught about the animals in the reserve and how to track them.

Over the next 47 years, Lucas honed his skills working as a tracker in the Timbavati and Balule reserves, before joining Lion Sands in 2006 as a Senior Tracker. Lucas is renowned for his particular penchant for tracking the elusive Leopard.

The story now:

In 2013, under the tutelage and mentorships of Louis Liebenberg, Juan Pinto and Wilson Masia, Lucas achieved the much coveted Master Tracker qualification, becoming one of four existing Master Trackers in the world, and only the second tracker to be awarded this prestigious qualification in the Lowveld since 1994.

What it takes to be a qualified tracker:

The Cybertracker qualification is an assessment that was created by Louis Liebenberg after realising that the art of tracking is a skill and talent that needs to be recognised and validated. An assessment system has been created and revolves around the identification of tracks as well as following animal tracks and trails in order to find the animal. For detailed info, click here.

With hard work comes great reward:

In celebration of this remarkable life achievement, the Lion Sands Game Reserve will be naming the link road between Lion Sands Sabi Sand and Lion Sands Kruger National Park the “The Mathonsi Link”.



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.

Yes, You Were Born to Run


BY RICHARD CONNIFF, APRIL 16, 2008, Men’s Health

Millions of years of genetic mutation and adaptation have produced a singular animal whose body, mind, and spirit are primed to sprint as if life depended on it. That animal is you. So why are you just standing there?

During his first full-throttle “persistence hunt,” the South African biologist Louis Liebenberg was working with bushmen in the Kalahari Desert in the early 1990s. Armed with handmade bows and arrows, the hunters had been stalking kudu — a nimble antelope, slightly smaller than an elk. When a young stag split off from the herd, the bushmen ran flat-out after it.

The kudu moved quickly out of sight in the brushy Kalahari landscape. But keeping up was more than just a matter of running; the hunters also needed to pick up footprints in the sand on the fly. Liebenberg, then age 30, hadn’t done the conditioning to be a long-distance runner, and he was wearing heavy leather boots as a precaution against poisonous snakes. And this was shaping up to be a hard run.

In persistence hunting, the trick is to trot almost nonstop in the heat of the midday sun, pushing the animal along so that it never has time to recover in the shade of an acacia tree. The Kalahari hunters have figured out how to play one critical advantage in a deadly game that pitches their survival against that of animals: Humans have an evaporative cooling system, in the form of sweat; antelope don’t. When conditions are right, a man can run even the fastest antelope on earth to death by overheating.

But after 10 or 12 miles, Liebenberg was overheating, too, and by the time he reached the kill, he was so dehydrated he’d stopped sweating. The only liquid in sight was the stomach water of the dead animal, but his companions stopped him from drinking it, because kudu eat a leaf that’s toxic to humans. If one of the hunters hadn’t run back to camp for water, Liebenberg figures he would have died. He also figures the experience taught him the answer to an ancient question.

What makes people run?

Why do 11 percent of Americans and tens of millions of people around the world tie on running shoes and clock their weekly miles? The three most recent presidents of the United States have put in time as runners (and earlier this year, one candidate, Mike Huckabee, trained for the Boston Marathon while campaigning for the U.S. presidency). The president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, is a runner. And beyond the vast army of ordinary joggers, it can sometimes seem as if the entire planet is trembling beneath the footfalls of ultramarathoners, Ironmen, and other endurance athletes.

Runners also make the news by dying while running–two died in the 2006 Los Angeles Marathon, another during unseasonably hot weather at October 2007’s Chicago Marathon, and yet another a month later, when 28-year-old Ryan Shay died of heart failure during the Olympic Marathon trials. So the question is asked not just in puzzlement but sometimes in anger and sorrow: What makes us run?

The answer, according to a controversial body of research, is that our passion for running is natural. A small group of biologists, doctors, and anthropologists say our bodies look and function as they do because our survival once depended on endurance running, whether for long-distance hunts like the one Liebenberg witnessed or for racing the competition across the African savanna to scavenge a kill. The prominent science journal Nature put the idea on its cover, with the headline “Born to Run.” And in his book Why We Run, the biologist and runner Bernd Heinrich, Ph.D., argues that something exists in all of us that still needs to be out chasing antelopes, or at least dreaming of antelopes. Without that instinct, “we become what a lapdog is to a wolf. And we are inherently more like wolves than lapdogs, because the communal chase is part of our biological makeup.”

Daniel Lieberman, Ph.D., first started to think about whether humans evolved for running as he was running a pig on a treadmill. A colleague, the University of Utah biologist Dennis Bramble, happened to look in. “That pig can’t keep its head still,” he remarked.

This was an observation Lieberman admits he never made in months of running pigs. Bramble invited him next door, where a dog running on a treadmill was holding its head “like a missile.” The conversation turned to the nuchal ligament, a sort of shock cord stretching from the back of the skull down the neck. It keeps the head from pitching back and forth during a run. Dogs have one because they’ve evolved for running. Pigs don’t.

Lieberman and Bramble were soon digging through bone collections. The skulls of chimpanzees, our closest primate relatives, showed no evidence of a nuchal ligament. But skulls of the genus Homo, which includes modern humans, did. “We had one of those epiphany moments that happen occasionally in science,” says Lieberman. Much as chimps were built for life in the treetops, the two scientists began to ask if humans were built for life on the run.

Almost 20 years later, I’m the pig on Lieberman’s treadmill. A postdoctoral fellow, Katherine Whitcome, has me trussed around my hips, chest, neck, and forehead with gyroscopes and accelerometers for measuring angles and speed of movement. The insoles of my running shoes have been fitted with inserts laced with devices that will measure my heel strikes and the way I roll off my fifth metatarsal. Wires run through a duct-tape collar to an assortment of electronic boxes on a nearby shelf and from there to Whitcome’s computer.

Lieberman starts the treadmill. “Pretend that the piece of yellow paper on the wall is your antelope,” he says. The speed kicks up to 6.7 miles per hour, and as my stride lengthens to keep pace, a dismal, office-worker thought passes through my mind: I salivate for Post-it pads.

I have never been a hunter. But as a journalist, I have been in on chases after real animals and close enough to witness a kill. Once I was following a fox hunt on foot through hilly country in Ireland’s County Meath. The riders came thumping down a muddy lane, shaking the earth with the staccato of metal horseshoes clattering on the occasional rock. They paused as the hounds searched a stand of woods. Flocks of blackbirds fled in alarm from the bare treetops. Then a hound let out the first strangled cry as he caught a hot scent, and a moment later a fox made a beeline out of the woods and up a hill. After a moment of confusion, the hounds also burst into the open. The horses took off. I followed, leaping from hummock to hummock to traverse a wet section and then sprinting up a slope, feeling as fleet and sure-footed as the 9-year-old who was running beside me. On another hunt, I saw the hounds chase a fox into a wetland, cascades of water kicking up around their feet. Then the distance closed and the fox vanished in a bloody cloudburst.

I suppose I should have felt remorse. But what I honestly felt was exhilaration at the close connection to the hunt, with life and death in the balance. The sudden power of forgotten urges astonished me. Had they been my kills, I would have smeared my face ritualistically with the blood.

Anyone who has put in some miles knows how good running can feel, once it stops feeling bad. But beyond the way it feels, medical evidence also suggests that humans are built for endurance exercise. In response to a good training program, for instance, the left ventricular chamber of the heart can increase as much as 20 percent in volume. The chamber walls thicken, too. So the heart fills up faster and pumps more blood to the rest of the body. The coronary arteries also change, dilating more rapidly to meet the body’s demand for oxygen. Endurance exercise won’t make anyone live forever. But it seems to make the cardiovascular system function the way the owner’s manual intended.

In the skeletal muscles, increased blood pressure causes new capillaries to emerge. The mitochondrial engines of the cells ramp up to consume energy more efficiently, helped along by an increase in the production of various antioxidants. These changes in the heart and extremities together typically boost the maximum amount of oxygen the body can consume each minute by 10 to 20 percent. For men who used to become short of breath slouching to the fridge for a beer, VO2 max can increase even more. Lapdogs start to function like wolves.

More surprisingly, the brain responds as if it was built for endurance exercise, too. Everybody knows about the runner’s high, that feeling of euphoria thought to be triggered by a rush of endorphins to the reward centers of the brain, usually near the end of a good, long workout. (Running for dinner, as part of a hunt, could very well amplify that effect; in essence, a love of running could lead to more ample dining opportunities.) But researchers have discovered lately that exercise affects the function of 33 different genes in the hippocampus, which plays a key role in mood, memory, and learning. By stimulating growth factors, exercise also produces new brain cells, new and enhanced connections between existing cells, new blood vessels for energy supply, and increased production of enzymes for putting glucose and other nutrients to work.

People who exercise regularly perform better on some cognitive tests: Run more, think better, hunt smarter, eat better. Exercise also seems to buffer the brain against neurological damage, reducing the effects of stress and delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s and other diseases. Most significant, exercise helps prevent and alleviate depression, which afflicts one in six Americans and costs $83 billion a year. In fact, studies suggest that exercise works as well as pharmaceutical antidepressants, and that the effect is “dose dependent”–that is, the more you exercise, the better you feel.

Running may also be the forgotten reason for many of the movements — the turn of a shoulder, the sway of a hip — we think of as most gracefully human. The lines of a Theodore Roethke poem come to mind: “My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees; / Her several parts could keep a pure repose, / Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose / (She moved in circles, and those circles moved).”

To put it in the less romantic language of anatomy, it’s the reason we are sweaty, hairless, elongated, and upright. It’s also the reason, Lieberman and Bramble say, for the exaggerated size of the human gluteus maximus. Their studies show that our big buttocks don’t matter much in walking on level ground, but they are essential for staying upright when we run.

Our legs have evolved for running, too, says Lieberman, and not merely in length. “Human legs are filled with tendons.

Chimpanzees have only a few, very short tendons. Tendons are springs. They store up elastic energy, and you don’t use elastic energy when you walk — at least not much of it.” But when you run, storing up the force of impact and releasing it as you kick off is essential. Smart runners know they can release that force more efficiently by using a springier gait, says Lieberman. “It’s really about the jump.”

Other scientists have begun to incorporate the “endurance-running hypothesis” into their research. Timothy Noakes, M.D., a South African physician whose book The Lore of Running is the bible of technical running, argues that misunderstanding human evolution can pose a deadly hazard to endurance athletes. British and American runners in particular have fallen prey to the notion that it’s essential to stay heavily hydrated during a race. Runners have died of hyponatremia brought on by drinking too much liquid while sweating profusely, which diluted their blood sodium to a lethal level.

“Humans evolved not to drink much at all during exercise,” says Dr. Noakes, chairman of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town. “If they had to stop every 5 minutes to drink, they would never have caught the antelope.” The secret for modern runners, he says, is to drink just enough to minimize thirst. “The best runners in any culture are the ones who run the farthest and drink the least, and the bushmen are the classic example. Humans are built to become dehydrated. That’s the point.”

But other researchers have attacked the endurance-running hypothesis, mainly on cultural grounds. Writing last year in the Journal of Human Evolution, Travis Pickering and Henry Bunn, anthropologists at the University of Wisconsin, argued that persistence hunting was too rare to have played a large role in our evolution. Bunn also calls endurance-running proponents “incredibly naive” in failing to consider alternate explanations of how early humans secured meat. They may have banded together as “power scavengers,” for instance, to steal kills from ambush predators. In any case, he says, meat was a relatively minor, though coveted, part of their diet.

Lieberman all but rolls his eyes at their arguments. Early humans didn’t have fire to cook meat and release its nutrients until 250,000 years ago. They didn’t have the bow and arrow until 20,000 years ago. “But we know that people have been hunting for 2 million years. The best weapon they had available to them was a sharpened wooden stick. I’m not exaggerating. How the hell are you going to kill an animal with a sharp wooden stick? It’s incredibly dangerous. You have to move close to the animal, which means the animal can kick you or gore you.”

And the alternative? Simply run the animal for 5 or 10 miles until it’s dying of heatstroke, and then knock it over with a feather. “That’s it. It’s amazing. It’s so easy.”

So if humans evolved for distance running, does that mean we should all be out notching up marathons now? Even ardent runners generally don’t think so.

On a winter afternoon, Walter DeNino, a medical student at the University of Vermont, is doing his regular training run along the Lake Champlain shoreline. Back in high school, he says, he logged so many miles that he ended up on crutches at the age of 15, with multiple stress fractures. He started to think that maybe some people really aren’t built for long-distance running after all, or at least not for the distances we’re tempted to run by the addictive nature of the sport.

Eventually, DeNino took up the triathlon, with a training emphasis on swimming and cycling. He also founded a coaching and sports-nutrition company, Trismarter.com, which aims, among other things, to lure lapdogs and couch potatoes back to the active life. The triathlon is a much newer sport than the marathon, he says, and it’s more welcoming to different body types.

That seems to be how nature works, too. Heinrich points out that humans have hunted with weapons long enough for natural selection to favor survival talents other than running. The rise of agriculture also may have changed the shape of the human animal. So some people have the light, lean, almost birdlike build of the ideal long-distance runner, and others are built squat and strong, for moving earth. According to one line of research, the cultures of our ancestors may even give some people a genetic predisposition to or away from long-distance running.

And yet as I ran on the treadmill that day in Lieberman’s Harvard laboratory, it seemed to me that the proponents of endurance running were onto something persuasive and appealing about human nature. There were moments when I forgot about the Post-it-pad antelope. Instead, I imagined a real antelope racing out ahead of me. I imagined my distant ancestors on the African savanna, hunting not quite beside me, but somewhere within. And just the thought of that connection lifted me out of this mundane world and away to someplace wild and even a little sacred.

Later, Heinrich told me about feeling that same connection when he was doing research in Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park. As he looked under a rock overhang, he suddenly found himself staring at a wall drawing made thousands of years ago by bushman hunters. It showed a series of stick figures, bows and arrows in hand, arms pumping, legs extended at full stride in the heat of the chase. Big, horned wildebeests loomed in the background. And off to the right, one hunter was raising both arms in an unmistakable gesture of triumph. It was the same gesture Heinrich had instinctively made the first time he won a marathon, the same one countless other runners still make as they cross the finish line. “Looking at that African rock painting,” Heinrich later wrote, “made me feel that I was witness to a kindred spirit, a man who had long ago vanished yet whom I understood as if we’d just talked.”

And, he concluded, “There is nothing quite so gentle, deep, and irrational as our running — and nothing quite so savage and so wild.”

A Brief History of Hunting: from Wild Animals to Subatomic Particles

ImageAkhnaton’s Journal

Hunting Subatomic Particles

One of the earliest devices (but not the first) that physicists used to detect, track and measure subatomic particles is something called a cloud chamber. The cloud chamber was invented in 1911 by the Scottish physicist Charles Wilson. A cloud chamber is actually a rather simple device. A glass container is saturated with water or alcohol vapor and a temperature gradient is created by placing dry ice on the bottom and a hot water pack on top. This gradient produces an atmosphere that allow clouds to form. When a radioactive substance is introduced in the chamber, it releases subatomic particles like electrons and beta particles (a helium nucleus).  These particles acts as the “condensation” nuclei, and as they stream out of the radioactive source, they produce visible streams of ‘clouds’. We can not actually see the subatomic particles; what we see is water vapor (or alcohol vapor) nucleated by the particles. Different particles behave differently in different situations, like in a magnetic field across the chamber. Electrons and beta particles have opposite charges, for example, so they will bend in opposite directions in a magnetic field. Beta particles are more massive than electrons, so they will not bend as sharply.

“Seeing” electrons and beta particles is relatively easy.  Any radioactive substance will do. You can actually purchase Tritium (radioactive helium isotope) or other radioactive sources and build your own cloud chamber with household items. In the past 100 years, more sophisticated devices have been invented to track subatomic particles, but the basic tracking principles are the same.

To find particles like the Higgs boson, we also need to know where and how to look for them.  Physicists come up with complicated mathematics models to figure out the conditions and variables needed to produce the particles, and then try to produce them by creating the conditions and manipulating the necessary variables.  There is a rather simple 3-step formula that physicists follow either knowingly or by habit. First (step 1) you study the tracks and behavior of particles in ideal conditions or situations that are easy to discern.  You build on what we already know, essentially.  That’s why physicists spend so much time and effort in school before actually working in a laboratory. In step 2, you manipulate the conditions and collect data in different situations following the same kind of thought processes.  Then once you have enough data, you use that data to construct a working hypothesis of where and how to find the next particle.  From this hypothetical reconstruction you look for the most likely place to find tracks or other evidence of new particles (step 3).  The Higgs boson, for example, has made it to step 2 of this formula (enough data has been collected to develop a working hypothesis that it exists), and recently, after overcoming some complications, made it to step 3 (actually finding evidence of it’s existance).  If the Higgs boson did not exist we would have had to come up with a new hypothesis.

This thought process is sometimes called the scientific method or deductive reasoning (or call it the hypothetico-deductive method if you really want to impress people), and it’s greatest power is that it allows us to know about things and processes we cannot see.   This is a quite powerful and effective tool, and it has had a profound effect on how humans function in the world. We are often taught that the scientific method was first fully developed by Europeans sometime between the Renaissance and the industrial revolution, or the era loosely known as the age of Enlightenment. It is, in fact, often claimed to be directly responsible for the European ‘Enlightenment’. Other sources credit ancient Greek philosophers with first articulating the reasoning process, or at least the legitimate system of reasoning.  In 350 B.C., Aristotle wrote a book titled Organon in which he articulates the art of reasoning.  Unfortunately, this system did not help Aristotle in figuring out that the earth revolves around the Sun, however.

Tracking Wildlife

Sometime in the 1980s, a man from South Africa by the name of Louis Liebenberg started his academic career by studying physics and mathematics at the University of Cape Town and was initially interested in particle physics.  After taking a course in the philosophy of science, however, he became interested in an idea that the origins of science began not with the age of Enlightenment or with the Greeks but rather with our hunting and gathering ancestors, and that tracking sub-atomic particles is not much different, conceptually at least, than hunting wild game.

Having grown up in South Africa during apartheid, Liebenberg had never worked with a black African until studying hunting techniques with the Kalahari San or !Kung people in Botswana and Namibia (often popularly known as Bushmen).  Liebenberg wrote a book in 1990 titled the Art of Tracking: the Origins of Science where he states that the tracking ability of foragers and hunters “is science that requires fundamentally the same intellectual abilities as modern physics and mathematics.”  When tracking down animals, for example, you can’t just follow the tracks because they disappear eventually.  The hunter-gatherers gather data about the feeding habits, breeding behavior, and migrating patterns of animals, for example (step 1 of the 3-step process mentioned above).  They then use the that information to create hypotheses and models about where to find more animals (step 2).  The hunters then follows the models to track down and ‘confirm’ their models (step 3). This knowledge underpins “a process of creative problem-solving in which hypotheses are continuously tested against spoor evidence, rejecting those which do not stand up and replacing them with better hypotheses.”  In essence, this ability is what makes us human, and for more than 200,000 years, we have used this ability for hunting animals and gathering plants, and only recently have we co-opted this strategy for finding other things like subatomic particles, criminals, and lower prices on houses, stocks and bonds, and household items.

The two major differences between hunters of Kalahari and the particle trackers at CERN are the things they are looking for and the instruments used to record data of the things’ whereabouts.  Concerning the first difference, you might say that the CERN physicists have a more inefficient and indirect way of obtaining their food. They use their hunting skills to find particles they can not eat but they keep detailed records and write down their predictions and discoveries which they use to impress other people who provide them the means to obtain their food. Concerning the second difference, the San depend primarily on their memories to record data, whereas CERN physicists are somewhat deficient in their memory skills so they have come to depend on other recording devices.  To be fair, the physicists have a very massive load of data to work with. They have so much data and information they share with physicists from all over the world that one of their former engineers, Tim Berners-Lee, developed in 1989 a protocol for hypertext documentation known as the ‘World Wide Web’ to make things a little easier (it initially didn’t help much with that effort, but other people outside of CERN found the protocol useful).

In 1997, Liebenberg got together with Justin Steventon, a software developer at Microsoft to found a company called CyberTracker.  CyberTracker makes software for portable electronic devices that could be used to track and record wildlife. The idea was inspired by Liebenberg’s interactions among the Kalahari San.  CyberTracker software is not only used to track wild game, but is also being used in wildlife preservation efforts, search and rescue missions, and even in finding criminals.

Further Reading
Leon Lederman. 1996. The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Louis W. Liebenberg. 1990. The Art of Tracking: The Origins of Science. Cape Town, South Africa: David Phillip.

Online Resources for Creating a Cloud Chamber
Building a Cloud Chamber for detecting Cosmic Rays, from the American Museum of Natural History.

Audubon Magazine: Off the Beaten Track


Wildlife tracking is making a comeback, attracting outdoor enthusiasts and biologists alike. For some it’s an engrossing hobby; for others it’s a critical contribution to conservation.

Even as tracking has captured the public’s interest, there has been a decline in natural history courses offered at universities. Across the country, schools have eliminated classes in basic taxonomy, ornithology, mammalogy, herpetology–the list goes on–causing a flurry of journal papers expressing concern about the future of organismal science and the next generation. “It is not trendy, it doesn’t bring in the big grants, or those kinds of subjects are considered to be old fashioned,” says Reed Noss, an ecologist at the University of Central Florida and author of essays on the decline. (Today many conservation biology students devote themselves to statistical modeling and DNA analysis.) “So very few people are coming out of graduate school even trained and able to teach those kinds of courses.”

“We lose a basic connection to nature when we don’t immerse ourselves in natural history and only deal with mathematical abstractions and theory,” says Noss, who laments changes in environmental education since the 1970s. “There was already a shift away from classification and toward experiential education where basically you played games with the kid. No one ever wanted to name anything because ‘No, that’ll turn kids off to nature if they make it hard work.’ ” The danger of these two extremes is that by “losing specialists equipped to identify organisms, we’re not able to track the extinction crisis nearly as adequately as in the past.”

Read the full article here…

Profile of an Icon: Master Tracker Karel Benadie

ImageFrom: 21 Icons – South Africa

by Michael Hathorn

A boy, slight and quick on his feet, runs up a hill close to his house in the jagged Karoo landscape. The hill is steep, and the days are hot, but he does this every morning. His daily routine: running tracking, and looking for the caracals that prey on sheep. He is Karel Benadie, and today, forty years after those morning runs up the hill, that young boy has become a master tracker – a rare distinction.

He has paid the price now for those early escapades, and all the subsequent years moving across the Karoo on foot. His back is stiff, and his knees struggle to bend. His eyes are as keen as ever though, and his ability to track remains unchanged. He is always alert to the bush and the creatures moving through it, making a rare boast: “I could track a spider.”

Benadie, in addition to having earned the title of master tracker, is active in passing on his knowledge. He works now at a game reserve in the Eastern Cape, training young people from disadvantaged communities in the art of tracking. He spends 1500 hours in the field with his students over the course of a year, working with them during the first half of the day.

In the afternoons, they are taught theory by his wife, Janetta, also a member of the academy. It is important work, and successful. The knowledge that Benadie possesses is vital to conservation, as efforts to protect and reintroduce endangered species would fall flat without the work of trackers on the ground monitoring the animals and protecting them from poachers.

Through his teaching, Benadie is ensuring that his skills are not lost, with immediate benefits to his students as well as the conservation community: over 90 percent of the tracker academy’s graduates find permanent employment in the industry.

At the age of fifteen, he was recruited by South African National Parks when the farm that he lived on was absorbed into a protected area. Initially employed as a fence-checker, his knowledge and skill was soon recognised. He was moved to game ranging, and his budding expertise was honed into mastery of the ancient craft of tracking. Working at such a young age meant that he was not given a formal education: he is one of the most highly-skilled individuals in South Africa, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of medicinal plants and wildlife patterns, and he has not completed school. His knowledge has been earned through long, tiring work that can become dangerous in an instant.

Rhinos are enormous, and capable of serious destruction when threatened and moved to anger. Benadie, while with two students, once stood up to one as it charged towards him; using only twigs and leaves, he created enough confusion to allow himself and the students to get away. “After that I was so scared. I was shaking – not outside, but inside I was shaking,” he says.

The Karoo is an inhospitable place. It is hot during the day and freezing at night. The landscape is full of rocks and the terrain is, one would think, nightmarish for a tracker. There is precious little sand, and the plant life is dry and brittle. Instead of following paw prints and scratched leaves, Benadie has learnt to follow disturbed stones and broken twigs, to look for signs in the land that point to the possibility of a trail, rather than a trail itself.

A large part of this art is abstraction, and takes place in his mind – Benadie prides himself on being able to think like the animals he follows, to anticipate their movements when physical evidence is lacking.

When he talks about this, his hands are as animated as his face, mimicking the soft, light padding of a leopard or the sharp hooves of a kudu. He struggles to express himself when speaking in English – it is his second language– but comes into his own when talking about his craft or pointing out the signs of a trail. This is where it becomes obvious why he has earned the title ‘master tracker’: his mind is fast, certain, and filled with knowledge of the bush.

The day that he was born, 24 July 1963, was freezing – the coldest in Beaufort West’s recorded history. The nearby mountain peaks were covered in snow, and a derivative of the Afrikaans word for it, ‘Kapok’, became Benadie’s nickname, Pokkie. That’s the name that he has gone by for his entire life, preferring it to Karel.

At the age of 27 he met the man who would become his mentor, Louis Liebenberg. A scientist who specialises in monitoring wildlife, Liebenberg is part of the tracking community, and identified Benadie as an individual with immense skill and knowledge. They formed a partnership centred on Benadie’s abilities and Liebenberg’s scientific background, and began to work on research projects together.

Karel Benadie has worked for years with very little recognition outside of the tracking community, acquiring knowledge that is growing increasingly rare as the years pass. His ability to acquire and retain information is up there with the world’s most celebrated intellects, but because of its unusual nature receives minimal attention. Another factor in Benadie’s lack of acclaim is his own personality: his skill as a tracker is matched by the depths of his humility. His value to South Africa and the world is unquestionable, and his contributions as a tracker and an educator to the field of conservation have been enormous. He has never asked to be celebrated, and prefers to let his work speak for him, but that doesn’t mean he should be overlooked: his story is one that everyone should hear.

As a part of this, Benadie spent fifteen years following black rhino after they were reintroduced to the Karoo National Park, recording their movements every day in order to better understand their needs for the purposes of conservation. Benadie would spend long stretches of time travelling across very difficult terrain on foot tracing the movements of the rhino. Together with another tracker, James Minye – one of the only other master trackers in the country – Benadie’s data was published in the scientific journal Pachyderm, going a long way towards proving the value of his work as scientific endeavour.


On Endurance Running, the Development of Scientific Thinking and Creating Greater Environmental Awareness

On-Endurance-Runningby Markus Kittner

Probably over 2 million years old and likely the most ancient form of hunting (before the domestication of dogs and the invention of weapons), persistence hunting is/was done without weapons. This was mainly possible because of the unique human physical ability to outrun an animal to exhaustion. Strange as it sounds humans are the best adapted creatures on earth to run long distances in hot conditions. Because unlike most animals our upright bodies aren’t so close to the hot ground, we sweat to cool down, don’t need to drink as frequently as other animals and our breathing is independent from our stride.

But besides endurance running, another important factor contributing to our persistence hunting success was our unique ability for scientific thinking. Humans had to be able to deduce, predict and theorize where the prey might be or run to (more on this in the videos to follow).

Back in the early 1980′s, 22 year old Louis Liebenberg was majoring in Maths and Physics at Cape Town University. There he had begun challenging the traditional view that the human brain could not be the product of natural selection because of it’s appreciation for art and science (which meant that it far exceeded the capacity of all other animals). However Louis had a hunch that scientific thinking was indeed evolutionary and had developed as a necessity for the survival of modern hunter-gatherer societies, especially from the practice of animal tracking in hunting. So on deciding he would rather research his evolutionary intuition than finish his studies, to prove his evolution theory Louis dropped out of college.

Read the full article here…