The Namibian (Windhoek)

7 February 2013

Namibia: School in the Sand

EVERYBODY knows that Bushmen are the best trackers, so it comes as a surprise to find a white South African down on his hands and knees teaching a Khwe San how to read the signs in the sand. Welcome to the Tracker School in west Caprivi, where traditional knowledge is on the curriculum, and Louis Liebenberg has high hopes for tracking students like Benson Kupinga.

Kupinga is no ordinary student. He's a father of five who works as a senior field officer for Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC ). As a Khwe he has read tracks since he was old enough to hunt with his father. Now he teaches game guards their skills in Bwabwata National Park, and wants local children to learn the art of tracking which will give them self-confidence and possibly career prospects in tourism and the environment.

To date, the tracker school has no buildings or blackboards. Knowledge is imparted the way it always was in the bush - with signs in the sand. Liebenberg has been brought in as a consultant by IRDNC and Sarep, the USAID funded Southern African Environment Programme, to assist experienced San trackers to pass on their knowledge to others. It's more of a teacher training college than a school.

The college is on the march down a sandy path when Liebenberg stops and draws a circle around a track. This is a difficult one - a level three question - and one by one the students come to look at the faint tracks and make an assessment of what had passed that way. Kupinga is first and after a while he makes his answer: a tiny frog has hopped across the track. Spotting buffalo and lion tracks is grade one stuff. Frogs are PhD level.

Kupinga is quietly satisfied, but his next task is more important; he has to help Liebenberg to test the others, because he is to become a trainer and evaluator in the future. One by one the students check the track, but most of the others, including a Ministry of Environment and Tourism ranger, are baffled.

'The Art of Tracking' was the title of Liebenberg's first book, with the subtitle: 'The Origin of Science'. Early hunter-gatherers had to do much more than just check the track of an animal, says Liebenberg, they had to visualise it and make the connection between the track and the animal. The capacity to make a hypothesis about something that is not there in front of you is something unique to man, argues Liebenberg, who believes that tracking led the way to scientific thinking. The trick is to add imagination to what you are seeing.

Liebenberg left university before he completed his studies to write his first two books, 'The Art of Tracking' and 'A Field Guide to the Animal Tracks of Southern Africa.' Like many South Africans he had completed national service, and he admits to going AWOL from the army to draw animal tracks in Etosha. His drawings are painstakingly accurate. He spends over an hour on each print, measuring details with callipers, and he makes up a composite drawing from several prints, because there will always be details missing in the sand.

His passion led him to invent the Cyber Tracker, a handheld device that game guards can use to help identify tracks and to pinpoint them using a GPS. Working in Kaokoland with Himba trackers he quickly realised that few of them could read or write, so it was difficult for them to record information. Poaching was rife and Liebenberg wanted to find a way to help game guards to do their work more efficiently.

He worked together with Justin Steventon at the Computer Science Department of the University of Cape Town to develop the first Cyber Tracker, using a touch screen Apple Newton and GPS lashed together. Steventon has since moved on to Microsoft in the USA, but he still helps out. With funding from the JRS Bio-diversity Foundation Liebenberg and Steventon have developed software that will run Cyber Tracker on the Android platform, using just a smartphone.

Cyber Tracker's first use came in South Africa's Karoo National Park, with non-literate trackers monitoring rhinos. After monitoring gorillas in the Congo, Liebenberg tried to interest the Kruger National Park in the technology, at first without success. His name was associated with the ANC. He had been on the Environmental Policy Mission and was instrumental in stopping the 'shoot to kill' anti-poaching policy, which made him unpopular with senior park staff. But one ranger was keen on gadgets and wanted to give the Cyber Tracker a trial, and soon it proved its worth.

The free software, loaded onto a smartphone, can provide pictures of animals, plants or tracks in many levels of detail. Once the game guard has identified the animal, he can enter information like sex, age, in which direction it is heading, and its position. He can report signs of poaching, like a cut fence. Liebenberg points out other possibilities, including a recent study on the distribution of alien vegetation in the park. Kruger is using the system extensively, and Liebenberg has his sights set on all of South Africa's national parks.

Namibia has a well-developed system for recording wildlife presence and movement called the Event Book. It too was developed with non- or semi-literate people in mind. With training, game guards can accurately fill in reports about wildlife, and incidents such as poaching and predators attacking farmer's stock. There are merits in both systems. The Cyber Tracker can upload data instantly to a central point, where it can be analysed almost as quickly. But smartphones cost money, can go missing, and rely on batteries. Whichever system is used, an experienced eye on the ground is needed to interpret tracks, and that is where the tracker school comes in.

Its greatest enthusiast is Friedrich Alpers, known to all as Fidi, who manages the Sarep project, which focuses on water and sanitation, and the integrated management of river systems, which includes mitigating the impact of flooding on bio-diversity.

Caprivi lies in the centre of Kaza, the world's newest and largest conservation area, taking in five countries. Preserving bio-diversity in the Kavango and Zambezi river basins is an important international conservation goal, and one that requires accurate information input from a vast area.

Fidi imagines local citizen-scientists, trained to monitor things like wildlife trends and movement, the time that migratory birds arrive, when the rains come, and how high the rivers are. The Cyber Tracker makes much of this possible, but none of it can happen without experienced monitors, and that's where the Khwe San and other Namibians come in.

Fidi's enthusiasm grows when he talks about children. "We almost have a lost generation," he says, "but if we can raise their self-esteem, and give them a pride in traditional knowledge and skills, they will be much more able to look for work. Just down the Okavango River there are nine lodges, and there is a demand for bush walks from tourists. These children are the tour guides and ecology specialists of the future. I can imagine a lodge calling us up to ask for a tracker, and before long employing the best ones".

After the morning's training some school children arrive to take part. Benson Kupinga is keen on teaching them. He is on his way to becoming a senior tracker, combining traditional knowledge with teaching skills that will benefit both people and the environment.

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