Tag Archives: The Art of Tracking

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…

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…

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.