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Track better-hunt better

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Most hunters are occasional or recreational hunters. They spend most of their time in city or officebound jobs dreaming about being in the bush and only once or perhaps a few times a year actually get an opportunity to go hunting.

At heart these individuals are true and dedicated hunters, but the demands of earning a living prevent them from spending the amount of time they wish they could in pursuing their passion. They have to content themselves for the most part by vicariously participating in the adventures of others through the reading of hunting magazines, watching hunting DVD’s or tinkering with their hunting equipment in preparation for a long planned for excursion into the wilds.

Many sport hunters therefore rely on the skills of trackers or professional hunters to help them interpret natural signs, locate animals they intend hunting, getting them close enough and into position for a shot and are sometimes reliant on trackers to help locate wounded animals.

By having to rely on the tracking and bush skills of others to bring a hunt to a successful conclusion means, by implication, that the occasional hunter is not a "complete hunter".

Compare the "hunter" who spends most of his existence in an urban environment to that of a Kalahari bushman who must hunt and forage for food and water - and successfully so - to survive on a day to day basis. The skills of the city dweller are cultivated and refined for urban existence and survival: how to cross a road safely during peak hour traffic, being aware at a stop street at night that a highjacker might be lurking somewhere in the shadows waiting to pounce, keeping doors locked, ensuring that your children are always under adult supervision and home before dark, being suspicious of strangers, regarding it as quite normal to have your hand luggage subjected to scrutiny before boarding a commercial airline.

Finding shelter, food and drink are not generally an urban problem. And so the city dweller’s senses become attuned to a completely different set of variables compared to that of the bushman to the extent that although the urbanite enjoys exposure to the wild outdoors he is generally (consciously or sub-consciously) aware of the fact that he is out of touch with what happens in wild places and is essentially an outsider – an alien in a strange land.

Many of the sounds, smells, tastes, textures and sights are quite foreign to him and he is obliged to rely on an "interpreter of the wild".

The bushman by contrast must be able to "read sign" if he and his family are to eat and survive. "Reading sign" is perhaps an inadequate term that leads to some misunderstandings with respect to what tracking skills actually involve.

Most people think of "tracking" as following a set of paw or hoof prints registered in the soil. This, although being an integral component, is but a small facet of what tracking involves because firstly it is confined to the visual sense and secondly is restricted to only one of the hundreds of visual cues to which the trackers vision is drawn like iron filings to a magnet.

Tracking is however not only confined to what can be seen. Sounds, smells, tastes and touch also convey information. Tracking would be more accurately described as a holistic sensory integration process which conveys a complete environmental awareness picture.

The accomplished tracker takes in information from all his senses and is simultaneously aware of the composite meaning of it all. He not only sees the tracks on the ground but is listening at the same time for sounds and testing the air with quivering nostrils, touching the place where an animal lay, feeling a light breeze cool the sweat on his forehead.

He sees not only the tracks but from them deduces which animal made them, when, the direction of travel and the condition of their author. His eyes search for addition signs which may indicate the passage of the animal being followed or the presence of others. He listens for animal, bird, frog or insect calls or the lack thereof which may indicate the flight path or warn of danger. His ears are pricked for the sound of a snapping twig, the scrape of a hoof against rock, the clatter of dislodged stones, a growl or an alarm call. His nose tests the air for distinctive smells – dust stirred up by hooves, the aroma of approaching rain, smoke from a bushfire.

Many animals have characteristic smells which he quickly recognizes – zebra, waterbuck, lion, wild dog, elephant and many others have their own signature odours. The cool turbulence on his forehead informs him of the direction from which the breeze is coming and he instinctively knows he is positioned well for his approach towards the animal he is tracking.

He does not have to be consciously aware of this - he just knows. Although sensory signs are separate and distinct from one another the accomplished tracker integrates it all to form a complete picture of the environment he is walking through.

The urban dweller gets most of his information from the morning paper, listening to the radio or watching television broadcasts.

The tracker reads the soil, smells, listens to and touches his world to be aware of the natural goings on all around him - and yet there is more, for the trackers perceptions are not confined to the five senses alone. His intimate knowledge of the ways of wild things "puts him in their heads".

Stated differently, he is able to "think" and "reason" the way an animal does and is therefore often able to predict with a remarkable degree of accuracy what an animal will do in any given set of circumstances: where it will go if it is hurt or wounded, how it will react to being approached, places it will hide if it feels threatened, where to find its preferred habitat an when it will go down to a waterhole to drink.

This intuitive knowledge comes through patient, persistent and long observation of wild creatures in their natural environment under different circumstances.

The occasional hunter, in a manner of speaking, suffers from urban induced sensory deprivation and is to varying degrees blind, deaf and challenged in tactile, taste and smell perception to things present and perceived in wild places. The hunting experience is therefore incomplete because the recreational hunter has "bush senses" which are partially blunted through lack of use.

Most hunters would agree that the enjoyment of the hunt does not hinge solely around shooting a trophy. It is the total experience that is cherished. Sitting around a campfire at night with good hunting friends, the challenge of the hunt, in some instances the flavour of risk when dangerous game is taken and many other facets which contribute exponentially to the satisfaction derived from the hunting endeavor.

But the experience could be significantly enhanced and the ability of the hunter increased proportionately as his tracking ability is improved.

Now I know what you’re thinking. You are wondering how you can improve your tracking skills if you live in an urban environment. The answer is that you will never become as proficient as the person who lives in the wilds and who is continually exposed to it. Sorry.

However the good news is that the occasional urban bound hunter can significantly improve his tracking skills despite not being in a bush environment.

Here’s how.

There are a number of good books available and an excellent set of teach yourself tracking skills CDs available with an abundance of visual material and "how to" tracking techniques and principles.

  • By carefully studying and working through these CDs and other books will go a long way in helping you to become a better tracker. The CD’s will show the types and differences between mammal tracks, bird tracks, reptile tracks and examples of sign that you can be on the lookout for in the bush.

  • If you know what to look for and identify what you are seeing, you are already on a different level of tracking proficiency. The CDs will also tell you what to listen for and ways to smell and observe and will give you practical hints of how to exercise these senses in and around your own home.

  • The senses are something like our muscles. If they are not trained and exercised, they atrophy and waste away. Given the correct way to exercise they become stronger and more efficient.

Study animal behaviour. There are a number of ways that you can do this in an urban setting.

  • Observe your pets and other domestic species: Cats, dogs, cows, goats, pigs and sheep are the domestic equivalents of wild counterparts and there are many similarities in their behaviour

  • Your cat behaves in a similar way to wild cats, caracal, serval, leopard and lion and the basic form of the tracks of your favourite tabby are very similar to those of wild species.

  • So next time your cut is lying purring contentedly on your lap examine its paws carefully you will have learned something of value that can be applied in the wilds. Watch how your cat goes to the toilet and how it stalks a dove on your front lawn. You will then have learned something about wild cat species.

  • Your dog behaves in many ways similar to jackal, and wild dog and has tracks which are akin to wild species.

  • Cows behave much like buffalo, goats like antelope and so on.

  • The scats of the domestic animals are also very similar to those of their wild cousins. The scat of cows looks (and smells) like that of buffalo, that of sheep like wild antelope, that of cats like wild cat species and so on.

  • So, careful observation of the tracks, scats and behaviour of domesticated animals can teach you a great deal about tracking which can be applied to the wild context.

Watch wildlife DVD’s / videos and nature TV programs: You can learn a significant amount about wild animals and the way they behave by watching and carefully observing wildlife footage

  • Look at the activities of animals, birds and other wild creatures – the way they interact, feed, drink, walk, and run and you can then form a picture in your mind how these actions will be registered in their tracks and other sign. Listen carefully to the soundtracks of these productions. Many of them have good background bush sounds, animal and bird calls. There are also some excellent CDs and DVDs available with bird, animal and frog calls.

  • You can learn to identify these in the comfort of your living room and will then be able to identify them in the bush when you hear them. Learn to relate these calls to animal and bird behaviour and you will realize that vocalizations will inform you about the actions and intentions of wild creatures that motivate them to audibly communicate.

Take a trip to your local zoo where you will be afforded the opportunity to observe animals at close range. Observe closely the structure of their feet, the way they walk and the tracks they register. Listen to their calls and catch a whiff of their body odour

  • Be aware of your senses and exercise them.

  • We use most of our senses on a subconscious level and when we do this they become lazy. When we consciously exercise our senses they become more efficient.

  • Ask yourself the questions: What an I seeing? What can I hear? What am I smelling? What am I feeling / touching? What am I tasting? When you have made yourself aware of a sense then consciously analyze what you are experiencing. What am I smelling – is it pleasant or unpleasant, strong or subtle, sweet or pungent? What am I seeing – what are the colours, hues, textures, lighting? And so on. When you are hunting you will find yourself becoming more aware of using your senses and analyzing what the incoming sensory information is revealing to you.

Make use of a "tracking garden"

  • A "tracking garden" is any area that is exposed to the ageing effects of a natural (outside) environment (heat, wind, cold, dew, rain) where you lay down sign and learn to identify the changes that take place in sign over time

  • You could do this in your garden or even on the sidewalk. You can make a footprint in the soil (or get your dog to walk across a substrate that will register a track), place some vegetation and fresh dog scat on the study area, urinate on the patch (out of sight of the neighbours) and prick your finger to get a couple of drops to fall on the vegetation and on the exposed soil.

  • Use your imagination and introduce different types of sign into your study area. Then visit it at various times, taking careful note of how the sign ages with time. Link this to past and prevailing weather conditions. The amount of tracking knowledge you can glean from a tracking garden in terms of aging of sign is quite phenomenal.

Observe people

  • Careful observation of people – which you can do anywhere, on the sidewalk, in your workplace, at a shopping mall – can teach you a lot about tracking people

  • Look at the way people walk, the length of stride they take at different speeds, the way they place their feet, the difference between men and women, young and old. Take note of how someone walks when they are carrying a heavy load and how this effects stride width and stride length. Watch a person with a limp or who is inebriated and walking with a weaving and unsteady gait.

  • Look at the wear pattern on your own and other people’s footwear as this will give you an indication of their walking patterns. What sign does a person leave when they are sitting down, resting, eating, drinking and carrying on with normal daily activities.

  • Look at tread patterns of footwear and how observing a track from different angles changes how much detail can be seen. Walk downwind from a smoker and see at what distance the smell of cigarette smoke and the body odour of a smoker can be detected

  • Listen to how loudly people generally talk (because of background noise levels) and bear in mind how far this sound will carry in a relatively quiet bush environment. The possibilities are endless but being aware of how your senses monitor the activities of humans will assist you in being a better tracker in a bush environment.

Learn to identify endemic trees, flowers and grasses and relate these to the feeding habits of wild animals and birds.

Some of these representatives of the floral kingdom may be present in your own garden. If not you can pay a visit to your local botanical gardens and learn to identify trees and plant species.

Cleve Cheney is a wilderness trail leader, rated field guide instructor and the author of many leading articles on the subjects of tracking, guiding, bowhunting and survival. Cleve has unrivalled experience in wildlife management, game capture and hunting, both with bow and rifle.
Click here to visit his site

Hopefully this short article has illustrated that it is possible to improve your tracking skills in an urban environment and that when you are afforded the opportunity to go hunting or find yourself for whatever reason in a wild setting your experience of the outdoors will be that much more enjoyable and you will also be a better hunter for having improved your tracking prowess.

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