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Learning the language of the bush: Cybertracker track and sign

Track and sign with Cybertracker is a valuable and wonderful part of Bushwise Professional Field Guide training. Bushwise students learn valuable skills that help them interpret the footprints and other marks they see in the bush. Anti-poaching units, such as K9 units, also use these tactics when working in the field. Trainer Darryn Murray tells us more.

Who would have thought that during a Bushwise course one of the most competitive and exciting parts of the course would involve staring at the ground? During the Bushwise Professional Field Guide course, our students have the privilege of spending time under the expert mentorship of Colin, Tristan and Samantha Patrick as well as a special experience with Johan Van Straten from the K9 unit (anti-poaching and detection dogs, and their handlers).

Track & sign with Cybertracker is all about reading the messages left behind by animals.

Being able to understand the various tracks and signs in the bush is a vital part of a field guide’s job. This includes knowing how recent a track was made, which foot left the mark, and what species of animal it was, and why it was in that area at that time. These are just a few of the things that field guide students learn during their week of track and sign training.

Tracking is equally important in protecting wildlife. This can be seen in detection and anti-poaching dogs, often called K9 units. During a recent Bushwise course, the local K9 unit put on a special training exercise and display to show the students how they use tracking on a daily basis to help to protect the wildlife that is found in various nature reserves around the country. The demonstration began with a scent test for the dogs, where they sniffed out several different items that the anti-poaching unit would be looking for during their time in the bush, including rhino horn, elephant ivory, ammunition and pangolin scales.

Sometimes you have to spend a lot of time looking at the ground in Cybertracker training

The next demonstration showed how these skilled dogs can follow the scent of poachers through natural areas. The students were split into groups with the K9 unit and given different roles; some were “suspects”, some were “handlers” and others were part of the “response team” that followed closely behind the handlers to apprehend the suspects. All of this was done by setting up a scenario whereby a scent trail was laid for the dogs to follow and the students had to follow and find each other by using the dogs under the guidance of the K9 unit team.

The final demonstration that we had the privilege of watching was the pack hounds, a team of six dogs that are equipped with GPS collars. These specific dogs are used for long distance and high speed pursuits of suspects. A trail was laid out for the dogs, roughly 2-3km in length, and then the dogs were released to follow the scent. The speed at which they moved was amazing to watch, they very quickly covered the distance and apprehended the “suspect” who was a member of the K9 unit, hiding in a tree. The students were in awe as they watched the entire operation take place before them.

The anti-poaching and detection dogs of the K9 unit mean business! But they also have fun.

Back on campus, the students prepared for their Cybertracker track and sign assessments. The assessment process is done over two days at the end of the week and follows the Cybertracker Track & Sign assessment process. Colin Patrick, the qualified assessor, joins students in the field and looks for tracks and signs left by animals. He identifies 50 total “questions”, circles them, leaves a numbered cone next to the circle, and then calls students to have a look and identify them. The questions are of varying difficulties. At the end of the assessment, the marks are worked out and the track and sign badges are handed out.

If a student achieved between…

70 – 79% they received a Track & Sign I Badge

80 – 89% they received a Track & Sign II Badge

90 – 99% they received a Track & Sign III Badge

100% they received a Track & Sign Professional Badge

Bushwise students looking at tracks left behind by animals in the African bush.

One of the most important things students completing one of these assessments must remember – whether they receive a badge or not – is that this is not the end of the road, they can redo the course with any Cybertracker evaluator at any point in their career. That’s one of the exciting things about field guide training – it’s a lifelong learning experience, you’re never really finished and you never know everything!

“Tracking is not about the destination, but rather about the journey.” – Colin Patrick

Does track and sign interest you? Join a Bushwise course and you could be learning how to read animal signs and interpret the wild world around you.


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