The San people of the Kalahari are world-famous for their tracking skills, an art that most learn from childhood.
Conservation International (CI) has employed traditional trackers to do research on animal behaviour and to conduct wildlife surveys for nature conservation using an electronic gadget called a CyberTracker.
Mmegi recently spoke to two CI cybertrackers, Kebogile Babotse and Oamogomotsa Cooper, who are both in their early 20s. According to Babotse and Cooper, their normal day starts at 6am when they prepare to go out into the field covering over 10 square kilometres. "When we leave early in the morning, we take 'strong' food with us like magwinya (fat cakes), samp, pap, beef and soup because we want the food to sustain us the whole day," Cooper says, adding that the also carry gallons of water with them.
His colleague Babotse says when they reach the place from which to start their survey, they look for the spoors or tracks of the animals on the ground. Once they spot anything of interest, they capture data using icons on the CyberTracker that is so user-friendly just about any tracker can use it.
Cooper dropped out of school before finishing his higher primary education while Babotse went as far as his Junior Certificate (JC) in secondary education. These gadgets, which are handheld computers really, come with a Global Positioning System (GPS) to help the trackers keep track of where they are as they work.
Babotse and Cooper speak more than passable English perhaps garnered from their interactions with international hunters and tourists.
The GPS shows them the path to follow to a destination from which they are picked up by colleagues from the Department of Wildlife. Babotse says once they spot an animal, a bird or a plant of interest, they enter details about it in the gadget including the date, the surroundings and the conditions in which they find it. The spoors of an animal can help a skilled tracker determine things like where the animal is headed, its gender and even whether it is injured. The two men have collected data about animals such as lions, wild dogs, leopards, gemsbok, wildebeest, springbok, eland, steenbok, honey badger, ant bear and the cheetah.
"We report to work every day of the week, including weekends, as our job is about giving our all," says Cooper, who adds that they even work during holidays.
He says the life of the CyberTracker battery is five hours, so they make an effort to cover as much ground as possible in a day's work.
Babotse, who is the more experienced of the two, says he is never frightened when in the bush. He has met a number of animals widely regarded as dangerous several times but says he was never scared because he knows how to deal with them. "When you chance upon a lion, even a pride of them, you either squat, stand still or retreat slowly," says
They also confess to being wary of the leopard but are quick to add that the cat is shy by nature and tends to flee when it spots people.
Babotse and Cooper are never armed when they go into the wild. They point out that they have had a peaceful co-existence with wildlife since childhood.
The trackers work hand-in-hand with the Department of Wildlife to which they report if they spot something out of place. While they generally know how to conduct themselves in the presence of animals, snakes are a different matter because "they can strike any moment without provocation", says Babotse. One of the dangers of working as a cybertraker is becoming disorientated because of the heat, which can put the tracker's life to danger because of the treacherous terrain, harsh conditions and the beasts.
Before working for Conservation International, Babotse and Cooper had it tough because they earned very little."I used to work as a driver and a community escort guide for the Trust before I joined Conservation International," says Babotse, the more communicative of the two men. "I love my new job because I earn more and I do what I love with all my heart." Cooper is equally enthusiastic about his job for the same reasons and because tracking animals is what he used to do as a child. The two men say they believe they are cut out for this job because they apply themselves with such a passion that they do not tire easily and hate poachers. Poachers are a threat their jobs because if they exterminate the animals in the corridor, their jobs will end.
As Western culture continues to encroach into the lifestyles of many across the globe, it remains to be seen whether the likes of Babotse and Cooper will be able to preserve the tracking skills of the San, albeit mixing them with modern technology. With the data they are collecting, the two might even help San communities over their running wrangles with the Department of Wildlife over the quota of animals they are allocated to hunt per season.
The overall aim of the WKCC project under which Baotse and Cooper are employed is to establish formally conserved wildlife corridors between two extensive protected areas in south-western Botswana - the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve - through an intervening region where wildlife movements have become disrupted through various changes in land use (human settlements, cattle ranches, fences, monopolisation of scarce water resources), while addressing the needs of the communities.