Tag Archives: master tracker

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”.

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.


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.