The Evolution of the Tracker
"He's the man we call the tracker
He has the eyes to see
Living on his instinct year to year
He's at one with the prey
He's part of nature's way
But he's living in the twilight of his day"
From the song "The
Tracker" by JV
To compare different trackers from various
countries is like comparing Rod Laver to Rodger Federer who
played at different times with different equipment.
Rather I have highlighted the strengths of
the various trackers and the animals they favoured and the
environment that they worked in.
Winnis Mathebula and Two Tone Sithole, simply the best on lion
I start with the legendary Winnis Mathebula.
Winnis came to work for my grandfather Charles Varty on the
recommendation of James Stevenson Hamilton the first warden of
the Kruger National Park.
Winnis had learnt to think like a lion and
would often leave the track and go to where he thought the lions
were moving to, be it a waterhole or dry river bed. In this way
he could save time. Occasionally he would get it wrong and then
by that time it was too late to go back to the track.
Once Two Tone Sithole joined Winnis the team
became formidable. Two Tone was a famous poacher and therefore
was not a lion specialist. Two Tone tracked anything that could
be turned into food. Therefore Two Tone would take the lion
track and methodically track the lion, track by track. Winnis
would move ahead anticipating the lions direction. If he lost
the track he would come back to Two Tone and so no time would be
lost. For lion, as a combination, Winnis Mathebula and Two Tone
Sithole were simply the best.
At Londolozi Game Reserve there are various
landmarks which reflect the names of these two great trackers.
In my book "Nine Lives", there are many stories in which Winnis
and Two Tone feature prominently.
Elmon Mhlongo learned to operate a sophisticated movie camera
For leopard I'm going with my good friend
Elmon Mhlongo. Elmon was there when we first found the Mother
leopard and it was due to his tracking skills that I was able to
make the award winning film Silent Hunter. The sheer volume of
hours spent tracking the Mother Leopard gave Elmon huge insight
into her habits.
At the end of her life, Elmon knew every den
site, every hunting trick she used. He could tell from her body
language whether she was tense or calm or angry. Many times his
advice kept us out of danger. I don't believe there is a leopard
before or since that was tracked as intensively as the Mother
Leopard. I believe Elmon Mhlongo and Richard Siwele, another one
of Londolozi's trackers, know more about leopards and how to
find them than any living human beings.
Lakakin can spot a cheetah at over 1km across the Mara grassland
For cheetah I'm going with Lakakin Sukuli.
Lakakin is a Masai elder who lives in the Masa Mara. At the age
of 16, Lakakin killed a lion single handedly with a spear when
it attacked his father's cattle. Lakakin's long sight across the
grass lands is phenomenal and he would regularly see lion and
cheetah at a distance of a kilometer.
I'm sure Warren Samuels will agree that many
of the great cheetah and lion sequences captured during my time
in the Mara, was due to Lakakin's ability to anticipate which
way the the predator would break and where the kill would be
made. Often film cars and still photographers would follow us,
because they knew that Lakakin would put us in the prime
For overall bush skills I will go with
Lakakin's brother, Karino Sukuli. Karino is a Masai but he
operates more like a Ndorobo. He owns no cattle but makes a
living out of hunting with a bow and arrow and then trading the
meat Often he will go into Tanzania for weeks at a time living
off the bush.
Traditional Shangaan bow and arrow hunter
As a boy, as told in my book, "Nine Lives",
Harry Kirkman would tell me about the legendary bow and arrow
hunter Engine (Elmon Mhlongo's uncle), Although Harry Kirkman
told me Engine was a poacher, I secretly wished I could go
hunting with Engine. Engine died before I could ever meet him.
Karino Sukuli, the best of the best
When I went in the early 80's to Kenya, I
met the legendary Karino Sukuli. Karino was living the exact
same lifestyle as Engine had lived at Londolozi many years
before. Many times instead of going filming, I would go hunting
with Karino. He showed me how to make the poison for his arrows
from the Acacanthera plant. He showed me the different
techniques used to hunt different animals. In terms of knowledge
of plants and wildlife he was an absolute master.
In my book, I describe an incident when
Karino, Elmon and myself were charged by a buffalo. After the
incident, Karino explained to me that if a buffalo got hold of
me, I should sham dead and the buffalo would eventually lose
interest and move away. Many years later, when in the jaws of
the Tiger Corbett, Karino's advice flashed through my mind, but
I quickly dismissed it as not relevant to an aggressive tiger
A tracker who survives off the land, the
plants and the animals, will always be superior to a tracker
whose food is guaranteed from another source. In Karino's words
"hunger is the great teacher". As the complete bushman,
tracking, hunting and knowledge of animals I put Karino as the
best of the best.
Hunters gatherers like Karino were part of
the ecosystem. The animals they killed with bow and arrow had
minimal effect on the numbers. Alas the Karino's of this world
are a dying breed.
Tracking skills are today as valuable as a university degree
The modern tracker is playing a crucial role
in the expanding tourists industry. Complete with a formal
education and able to speak English the modern tracker can
interact with tourists from abroad and are becoming involved in
photography and filming during the game drives.
During your next trip to a game lodge, when
you get that magical leopard shot, consider for a moment the
part that your tracker has played in finding the leopard. When
it comes to tipping, reward him accordingly.
Game Lodges should be encouraged to copy the
Tracker Academy set up at Londolozi Game Reserve by Alex van den
Heever and Renias Mhlongo, which has kept the art of tracking
alive. Aspiring trackers graduating through the Academy can go
on to become guides and have extremely successful careers in the
tourist industry. Today tracking skills are as valuable as a
On the dark side, poaching syndicates have
sought out individuals with tracking skills. Equipping them with
high powered rifles and G.P.S's, huge amounts of money are being
offered to trackers for horn and even information as to the
whereabouts of rhinos.
A corrupt tracker who has been bought off,
can with a G.P.S in his pocket, while on a game drive, mark the G.P.S
of the rhino and then with a cell phone call the position
through to the syndicate.
Mozambicans with tracking skills, being hired by the poaching
Rural people from Mozambique with bush and
tracking skills are being recruited by the poaching syndicates
and the Kruger National Park has been hard hit by poaching in
2011, 12 and 13. All rhino in Mozambique which came from South
Africa originally are dead and the horns sold to Asia.
One thing is for sure many "corrupt trackers"
will die or go to jail and many more rhinos will die before the
rhino war ends.
Tread Lightly on the Earth