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A good track record.

Rolex Laureate and master tracker Louis Liebenberg has developed a simple electronic recording device that he hopes will preserve ancient skills and benefit wildlife management

The Bushmen of southern Africa are the most skilled wildlife trackers in the world. For hundreds of thousands of years they have followed the tracks of animals, observing and interpreting footprints and trails that reveal every aspect of animal behaviour. Since the majority of these trackers are illiterate, little of their experience or knowledge has been documented, and until recently, these ancient skills, passed on to future generations by word of mouth, were on the brink of dying out.

Most of the praise for preventing this must go to South African Laureate Louis Liebenberg whose Rolex Award-winning project has begun to chronicle and preserve the ancient art of tracking. His unorthodox approach combining Stone-Age practices with space-age technology may well revolutionise nature conservation and wildlife management. It will certainly revitalise the art of tracking as it develops into a modern and respected profession.

Liebenberg, a student of physics, mathematics and the philosophy of science, believes that tracking may be the oldest science, representing one of the first instances of deductive intelligence in human behaviour. His unique theory linking tracking, science and evolution is presented in his first book, The Art Of Tracking: The Origin Of Science, where he details how trackers build up a phenomenal mental database through observation and hypothesis. With research gathered over 10 years, his first book was complemented by a second ground-breaking text, A Field Guide To The Animal Tracks Of Southern Africa. To complete his research, Liebenberg accompanied trackers on their expeditions in the Kalahari Desert, painstakingly learning the subtle art of tracking. He acquired skills that have made him a world authority on spoor-animal track identification -- and earned him a reputation as one of South Africa's foremost trackers.

Liebenberg is now able to codify this tracking data through his unique computerised tracking system, helping to prevent the time-tested methods of the African Bushmen -- or San, as these hunter-gatherers are commonly known -- from dying out.

Like his Bushmen teachers, Liebenberg learned to read the smallest droppings and faintest markings. For example, by examining the depth and splay of a footprint he can determine whether an animal is fleeing or feeding. He is able to deduce not only to what species an animal belongs, but also its behaviour, diet, reproductive cycle and state of health. Liebenberg can even predict the destination of migrating herds, an important fact in curtailing poaching.

Liebenberg understood that to revitalise the art of tracking he needed to do more than merely write about the subject, so he began to develop a programme that would revive these ancient skills that had become marginalised by government and society.

"Of the few thousand Bushmen left in the Kalahari region, many have become outcasts who, despite their rich knowledge, have been exploited and are often given no credit for their skills," says Liebenberg. "Most have ended up doing menial jobs such as mending fences and digging holes."

Liebenberg's long-term goal is to establish a core of trained, expert trackers who will then spread their expertise throughout southern Africa and beyond. He has already initiated an intensive training course and tests enabling the trackers to improve their skills and obtain diplomas.

Liebenberg's training programme, funded by the German cooperation agency GTZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit), involves eight South African national parks, including the Kalahari Gemsbok and Kruger. By creating employment opportunities for trackers in eco-tourism and anti-poaching programmes, the passionate champion of the Bushmen is equipping them to hold a more valuable position in society.

Mental maps

While tracking with the Bushmen, Liebenberg noticed that, as most of them are illiterate, they relied on mental maps to guide them, rather than written documents. By tapping into this mental database of information built up over the years, they were able to make accurate deductions about the animal's behaviour.

Liebenberg began to look for a technical means of recording the trackers' observations. With the help of Professor Edwin Blake, then head of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Cape Town, he conceived the idea of equipping trackers with hand-held computers linked to a satellite navigation Global Positioning System (GPS). Then, in collaboration with post-graduate computer student, Lindsay Steventon, he developed the ingenious interactive system aptly named the CyberTracker.

A key feature of this hand-held computer is its user interface. The field-worker simply presses one button to activate the programme and selects options by touching icons on the screen with the tip of a finger. Liebenberg created hundreds of icon pictures to help the trackers with their task. "More than 40 animal species are indicated on the menu," he says. "Once the tracker has indicated the animal he is stalking, he can then scroll through the display screens and record activities such as drinking, feeding, running, fighting, mating and sleeping. He can even register other animals in the vicinity. The list of species and icons will be customised for each nature reserve."

Using the CyberTracker's satellite link, the tracker is able to record the exact location, time and date of each observation. This information can be fed into a Geographical Information System (GIS), making it possible for park managers to have instant visual access to all the information gathered. The database created is processed into charts and maps to provide an analysis of the situation in the field, including the geographical distribution of certain species.

The implications of the CyberTracker are immense both for the Bushmen and the natural world. In the hands of the expert tracker, the small computer becomes an important aid to wildlife management. Preliminary results at the Karoo National Park in Cape Province have indicated a shift in the behaviour of rhinoceros, suggesting an early sign of food shortages. By monitoring the behaviour, feeding patterns, condition and interaction of these animals, it may be possible to manage them more effectively and use the data in the war against poaching. Based on the pilot project in the Karoo Park, managers at Kruger National Park have requested a hundred CyberTrackers and are applying for funding. If the funding is approved, park officials anticipate being able to digitally record a staggering five million observations a year. Also, Liebenberg hopes to introduce the system to the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park where it will be used to monitor lions.

Liebenberg's work has not been without opposition from traditional conservationists and it is only in the last few years that his perseverance has paid off, gaining him respect and support. As Professor Blake emphasises, the CyberTracker system is "a lot cheaper and more efficient than aerial surveys and radio telemetry in managing wildlife."

With the help of the Rolex Award funding, Liebenberg aims to add features such as enhanced software which will allow automatic statistical analysis of the data, and to develop a multimedia CD-ROM. He also intends to devote his full attention to expanding the CyberTracking programme.

Liebenberg, who today acts as a nature and conservation advisor to South Africa's Minister of Land and Agriculture, is confident that his project will be accepted by others. Indeed, he has just returned from Gabon where he was using the system to monitor lowland gorillas. There is also a keen interest in monitoring mountain gorillas in Uganda.

Nearly a decade ago, AC Brown, professor of zoology at the University of Cape Town, foresaw Liebenberg's success. "The originality of Liebenberg's concept, together with the convincing nature of his argument, may well win him international repute," he commented. His prediction has proved correct.
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Publication:Geographical
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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