Last year, Marataba South Africa brought on a team of trackers to give our game-viewing experience the extra edge. It’s been 10 months now since their arrival, and they know the reserve like the back of their hands.
Tracking is a specialised skill – the tracker uses tracks (also called spoor) and other signs left behind by animals to follow and locate them. Our team consists of four trackers, who together went through an intensive one-year course in South Africa’s Sabi Sand and Karoo wildlife areas, where they became experts in this field. Three trackers work together at a time – two stay together while following tracks in the bush, and the other is available to drive the vehicle.
While out on the reserve, the trackers notify our field guides of any wildlife they come across, but their primary responsibility is to locate the big cats – specifically lion and leopard. I recently caught up with the trackers to get the inside scoop on their work at Marataba.
According to the team, the first month was their most challenging. They had to get to know both the reserve and the animals here. For several weeks, it wasn’t easy for them to find the cats. But over time, they started to learn when and where to go to find them, based on their habitat preferences, favourite ‘hang outs’, and the routes they frequent.
Now, the trackers seem to have a particularly good handle on the lions at Marataba. It still requires skill and effort, and the trackers have an impressive success rate. In fact, during the month of April, they located lions every single day, resulting in some exciting sightings and very happy guests!
As for the leopards, the trackers often find their spoor – and have even located cubs’ spoor. But the leopards are shy of people, and will run if they encounter one of the trackers on foot. To overcome this challenge, a tracker, on finding fresh leopard tracks, will follow up in the vehicle, which the leopards are more accustomed to.
Naturally, one of my questions for the trackers was about safety in the bush. They walk without rifles in Big Five territory, but seem to be very comfortable. I asked if they’ve ever had any close animal encounters. They all laughed, nodding their heads with wide smiles. They have been growled and charged at many times by lions here, but have never had an experience they felt was life-threatening. “We are trained to handle these situations, and know to stand our ground and never run.”
I then asked about mother lions, four of which we have on the reserve at the moment. Mothers of any species are highly protective and, perhaps, the most threatening animals of all. One of the trackers, Malibongwe, succinctly replied, “Moms don’t play games.” But the trackers know to be particularly careful around them, and won’t follow up if the area is too thick or they believe the situation to be too risky.
Click here to read the latest update on the lions at Marataba.
That being said, their tracking efforts have resulted in numerous sightings of lions, including cubs, and of leopards. You may see them on duty while on a game drive at Marataba, but even if you don’t, you can bet that there are extra eyes scouting behind the scenes to deliver our guests the best safari experiences possible.
Words and photos by: Charlotte Arthun