Minding their steps

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Here are some dingo tracks (and my anthropology association membership card for scale) running roughly north to south along a forest road beside the property where I’m doing my observations. In three weeks I haven’t spotted a single dingo but I know they’re around because there are fresh tracks like these. Some are easier to see than others and these ones stand out like dog’s er… tracks. It looks to me like this particular individual was running.

I am definitely not an accomplished tracker so I figure that for an expert these tracks are the equivalent of breakfast in bed. The soil is powdery but holds impressions well and over time there’s a steady rain of plant matter falling on the road which gives a good indication of how long it’s been since these tracks were made. In fact there was a bit of rain fell between these and some older ones nearby which tells me without doubt who went past first. But a little further down the road the surface hardens, the tracks disappear and for all I know the dingo was abducted by aliens. I’m just not that good a tracker. But like an armchair expert on football, I know enough about tracking to be able to say it’s not always as easy as this and it’s definitely not always about what’s on the ground. It’s as much about what’s in the animal’s head.

In Liz Marshall Thomas’ The Harmless People there’s an account of a Bushman named Short Kwi who was bitten by a puff adder and eventually lost his leg. I remember being perplexed by this account because among the Bushmen, Short Kwi was a considered crackerjack hunter. I thought, if Short Kwi was such a skilled hunter, and Bushmen are/were famous for their skills at tracking, then how on earth could Short Kwi miss such a thing as a deadly puff adder in his path? Hmm, maybe he wasn’t hunting and the puff adder came into the camp while he was sleeping and bit him on the leg? Could be, but there’s another explanation that allows Short Kwi to maintain his reputation.

The thing about decent trackers is that they only rarely glance at the ground. Normally they are looking up ahead of themselves and only occasionally stopping to look down. Now while for a hack like me that sounds counterintuitive, it is in fact best-practice tracking; it’s highly intuitive and involves a distinctly human social skill: imagining the mind of another. By looking up ahead, trackers look at the landscape through the eyes of their quarry, imagining where they would choose to go, were they a poisoned eland, or wounded buffalo. This is how they can follow tracks across bare rock: they don’t follow the physical traces of the animal, they follow the mental traces in their own minds. So easily Short Kwi could have stepped on a puff adder while hunting as he would have been focused on the pathways up ahead that he was imagining his quarry was taking. Only later would his friends have examined the ground to see a replay of what happened.

So how are your tracking skills? Can you glean any information about this dingo from these few tracks?

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