Tracks and trackers
January, 22, 2009
‘I track humans,” said the stranger sitting next to me, by way of introduction. As a conversation starter it made quite an impression. He was the sort of character who could fairly be described as crusty, and I suspected I might end up as captive audience to his Ancient Mariner. He went on to volunteer that he was an expert tracker whose services had been of particular value to law enforcement, and who now was responsible for preventing poaching on a large piece of private land in the Berkshires.
“You know how I catch ’em?” he asked, raising a craggy eyebrow with the confidence of one in possession of secret knowledge. “I find their tracks in deer season and then I go to the nearest bar. Anyone sitting on a stool is showing me his boots. I just compare what I see to what I saw.”
Tracking for me has never been quite that simple, and though I greatly admire those who can read even the slightest disturbance on the ground, I am a rank amateur when it comes to following sign. I have had the privilege of watching some legendary trackers, including the Ju/’hoan bushmen of the Kalahari, but must ruefully confess that even with a naturalist’s eye, I am capable of missing not only the proverbial elephant in the room but also the actual beast in the veld.
When I lived in Namibia, I once took a walk out into the bush to see what sort of sign a breeding herd of elephants leaves in its wake. I lived at a discontinued field station where thirsty elephants routinely smashed through fences and tore up water pipes. This may have been because it was located along an elephant highway: the dry riverbed of the Kakatswa (charmingly translated from the local dialect as the “anus droppings river”). It was actually a starkly beautiful spot, below the flat mesa of the Grootberg amid the mopani and leadwood trees. I often walked up this dry watercourse, watching birds and exploring the landscape, and contrary to local expectation, I never went armed because I never expected to get into a situation where I might need to be.
You may think that foolish, given that there were leopards and hyena in the area, as well as scores of species of venomous snakes, but I knew enough about these to know that a leopard has never killed a human being in southern Africa since the beginning of recorded history, that the few brown hyenas were furtive and avoided human contact and that the best thing to do with snakes was to pay attention and avoid stepping on them.
I wanted to experience what the ground looked like after being worked over by so many huge creatures, and thought myself quite safe because the herd had moved on and was reported to be more than 30 miles away. As you might expect, a foraging herd of pachyderms can really tear up the vegetation, particularly in semi-desert conditions. The elephants had left great red smears of dust against the tree trunks where they had scratched. Twisted and broken limbs hung from the acacia trees. After satisfying my curiosity, I decided to take a different path home, following a smaller dry stream back to the main stem of the Kakatswa.
As I walked, I noticed the fresh footprints of an adult elephant. I considered that the matriarch of a breeding herd will drive off the adolescent bulls when they reach about 15 years, and they remain apart from the herd in small bachelor groups or as solitary males until they enter musth, a sexually aggressive period when they can be quite dangerous. It could have been that these tracks belonged to an amorous male, but in that case I figured it had followed after the herd and was by now long gone.
Consequently, when I rounded a corner of this narrow riverbed, hemmed in by acacia thorn and mopani trees, my eyes jerked automatically upward when I heard a great, ponderous exhalation of breath. Discerning nothing at that level, I caught a motion on the ground, perhaps 20 feet away, and something long and snakelike rustling in the fallen leaves. Slowing it dawned on me that what I had seen and heard was an elephant’s trunk, and that lying before me was an adult elephant that I would have walked right by had it not snored.
I thought it was a snore, but I could neither recall reading about nor hearing anyone talk about elephants lying down to sleep, and I wondered whether this animal was ill or had been injured. Perhaps it had been wounded by a poacher and had run until collapsing. In any event, I was far too close to it and it to me, and the last thing I wanted to do was startle it. So I asked it if it were OK.
I’m not sure what response my unconscious mind was expecting, but that elephant was on its feet and fully upright in a terrifying instant. I turned and started moving very swiftly away from the elephant, looking over my shoulder and expecting pursuit. Much to my relief, it was of the same fearful mind and started moving very quickly in the opposite direction, looking back at me in alarm as it vanished into the trees. Within a few seconds, I could no longer hear the elephant and I was once again alone in the bush.
I believe I sang the first song that popped into my head — “Waltzing Matilda” — as loudly as possible for the remainder of my swift return to camp. My wife looked at me as if I had lost my senses. In my defense, that elephant’s behavior was quite unusual. Friends at the Ministry of Environment and Tourism later said elephants only rest lying down when they feel very, very secure in their surroundings, and this one would likely never do so again.
The last elephants to roam the valleys of the Litchfield Hills passed away at the end of the Pleistocene age. But one of the old family names of our region, the Spurrs, comes from the Dutch spoor, meaning the trail left by a person or animal. As a follower of spoor, I limit myself to following the tracks of small animals in the snow, the one time when our poor blinkered senses discern what other creatures know in every season.
Tim Abbott is program director of Housatonic Valley Association’s Litchfield Hills Greenprint. His blog is at greensleeves.typepad.com. He and Fred Baumgarten write Nature’s Notebook on alternating weeks.
© Copyright 2009 by TCExtra.com
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