Allan Savory and the Science of Tracking: How the world’s oldest scientific method has changed everything from grazing livestock to snaring poachers

In the 1960s, at the start of the long civil war that yielded Zimbabwe’s independence, Savory was able to use his tracking expertise. He developed tactics suited to bush guerrilla warfare and established the Tracker Combat Unit that became the elite Selous Scout regiment, renowned for its counterinsurgency successes.

It was this “long civil war” that drove him (and his partner Stan Parsons) from Rhodesia to the united States via South Africa. He was forced to flea for his life from the communist inspired terrorists revolutionaries led by Robert Mugabe.

Savory left behind a ranch, a sugar plantation and a family. Mugabe’s government confiscated the ranch along with untold hundreds (if not thousands) of others as he proceeded to systematically destroy Zimbabwe (the former Rhodesia).

The ranch Savory left behind is the current location of the Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe. And the good news is (I heard just this morning) that Mugabe’s 37 year reign of terror is coming to an end. He is being ousted and is near death. There is justice in some parts of the world after all. — jtl,  419

by via thefern

Allan Savory crawled through the dense brush, feeling for indentations beneath the leaves, signs of a lion. Two hired trackers from Botswana had long abandoned the quest, so it was up to him to capture the predator that was killing local cattle.

For several hours, Savory tracked both the lion and the trackers. Past the point where trackers lost the path and veered away, he kept on, following “grains of sand on top of fallen leaves,” he says. But eventually, the sand dwindled to nothing. In the teak forest, nightfall was approaching. He was losing the light.

As a ranger with the Colonial Service in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in the 1950s, Savory frequently found himself on the trail of rogue elephants and man-eating lions. For particularly high-risk fauna, the rangers usually relied on native trackers. Savory noticed, however, that when it came to lions, particularly those that developed a taste for humans, the trackers invariably “lost” the trail to avoid an encounter. If he was to do his job, he had to teach himself to track.

That is how he found himself at dusk on his hands and knees, maneuvering through the undergrowth, drawing on what he’d learned from observing native trackers and the nuances of the landscape to help him catch a wild animal that could very well kill him. He continued creeping along the forest floor for some 30 or 40 yards until he “came to a narrow and low part the lion had gone through. So I crawled through very quietly, but being so narrow, I had to push my rifle ahead of me.” Savory didn’t want to go any deeper into the bush with the rifle’s safety catch on. He released it as gently as he could, but the click was still audible. “The lion heard that, so it growled and rushed off,” he recalls. It was only 10 yards ahead.

Sunset, Dimbangombe, Zimbabwe
Sunset, Dimbangombe, Zimbabwe

Stepchild to Science?
These days, Savory is best known for developing Holistic Management, a decision-making process for land use in which practitioners manage livestock so that their behavior mimics that of their untamed counterparts. Experiences like that close call with the lion play into his work today: Savory believes his tracking skill enabled him to develop the Holistic Management framework. Only a tracker would drop to all fours to assess marks and patterns on the soil surface and envision the precise action of hooves that created them.

Tracking is an art that has guided Savory through several decades of stalking wild game and, later, guerrilla warfare. It also has contributed to key insights about how animal behavior can be harnessed to improve the condition of the land, especially in regions like his native Zimbabwe with long dry seasons during which ruminants are conveyers of soil fertility and moisture.

But in an era of satellite-driven data, with detailed information about virtually any dot on a map, tracking has lost much of its life-and-death urgency for the rest of us. This raises the question: Is tracking still relevant, or is it merely a quaint, lesser stepchild of modern science?

“I don’t know a better way to teach observation, deduction and reasoning,” Savory says. Indeed, recent years have brought new applications of tracking for ecological research and conservation. So rather than being a dying art, tracking may be coming into its own.

Tracking is as old as mankind. The earliest hominids hunted and therefore engaged in simple, or systematic, tracking, says Louis Liebenberg, the South African author of The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science. Systematic tracking entails following an animal, using clues and signs like spoor (tracks, scent or droppings), displaced stones or trampled grass for guidance. You’re sticking to the empirical evidence; there’s no guesswork.

In speculative tracking, the tracker anticipates an animal’s actions. You’re projecting yourself into the animal’s mind based on knowledge of animal behavior and the terrain, says Liebenberg. Speculative tracking trades in prediction and possibility and allows the hunter to stalk prey and be alert for shortcuts. Evidence of the bow and arrow dates to about 70,000 years ago, he says, suggesting that speculative tracking was used by that time.

“Speculative tracking reflects the essence of science,” he says. The tracker assesses signs in the environment to construct a working hypothesis about the animal and its whereabouts, which would be confirmed or disproved as the evidence emerges. “It’s about the human imagination,” he says. “A physicist can only see signs of a particle but cannot see the particle itself.”

Liebenberg’s interest in tracking, like Savory’s, arose from experience in the African bush: Out of interest and curiosity, he began observing and drawing animal tracks while serving in the military in northern Namibia. Liebenberg had important mentors, including master trackers of the Bushmen, or San people, in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana.

Liebenberg regards tracking not just as the foundation of scientific endeavor — he suggests it drove the development of human intelligence. He believes this is supported by the increased intellectual sophistication required as tracking evolved. Liebenberg’s theory is that scientific thought arose from tracking. The analytical skill required “says something about what makes humans unique: the ability to make causal connections,” he says.

He regards the development of speculative tracking as particularly relevant to the scientific enterprise. This is where cognition took a leap. The tracker is not just observing signs but using the signs to pose “what if” questions like, “If the animal is looking for cover, where might it go?”

While we’ll never know the exact trajectory of our intelligence, skills like tracking “are part of the development of the human genus as well as the human genius,” agrees Daniel Lieberman, a professor in Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, where Liebenberg is an associate. Scientific logic and understanding was needed among all hunter-gatherers, he says. “You have to be a naturalist, and to formulate and test hypotheses.”

As a ranger in the 1950s, a young Savory often found himself on the track of man-eaters long after local trackers conveniently
As a ranger in the 1950s, a young Savory often found himself on the track of man-eaters long after local trackers conveniently “lost” the trail. His skills would serve him in a tracker combat unit a decade later. (Courtesy of Savory Global)

Looking 20 Yards Ahead
At the Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe, about 12 miles south of Victoria Falls, Savory takes his wooden walking stick and traces marks on the ground. “That’s a sable hoof. Baboons have been here. Elephants were here recently,” he says. He draws my attention to lines and indentations of varying degrees of legibility: signs of the wealth of animal life on the Centre’s land.

To me, it was a spot like any other we’d walked or driven through that morning: mats of yellow grasses over rich, red earth and scrubby trees with only the occasional winterthorn showing green. But Savory found plenty of animal signs.

At nearly 80, Savory is slight and nimble and keen to his surroundings. He wears green khaki shorts, a light cotton shirt and a wide-brimmed felt hat — but no shoes. He says this benefits tracking. “With every single footstep, I’m conscious of the temperature of the soil and its texture. Here, it’s cool,” he says, pressing a foot into the ground. Later, when the ground is too hot, he’ll reluctantly don a pair of Crocs or his thin-soled kudu-skin shoes that flap open where they’re worn through.

For Savory, tracking brought together his two passions: wildlife and the military. He grew up during World War II and was steeped in the romance of battle. “I was fiercely proud of Rhodesia’s role in the war,” he says. He considered attending the British Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst. “I didn’t want to be a peacetime soldier, so I went with my other passion, the bush.”

In the 1960s, at the start of the long civil war that yielded Zimbabwe’s independence, Savory was able to use his tracking expertise. He developed tactics suited to bush guerrilla warfare and established the Tracker Combat Unit that became the elite Selous Scout regiment, renowned for its counterinsurgency successes. “I worked them from dawn to dusk,” Savory says. “You get splitting headaches because you have to concentrate without stop. There are no coffee breaks. If you’re at risk of getting shot at, you can’t afford to miss any cues.”

Since then, he has consulted on military tracking and countertracking — how to avoid being tracked. Over many years as a ranger, soldier and farmer, he studied the landscape and sought to understand why protected areas in southern Africa continued to deteriorate. While visiting a ranch in South Africa, it came together for him: He noticed a corner of a paddock where a large number of sheep had grazed for a short duration. The animal impact had improved the soil so that seedlings were sprouting and the water had soaked in rather than run off.

He crouched to get a closer look. Where the sheep had been, the rich, moist soil was nourishing plant life. Elsewhere, the ground was hard and dry, and there were bare patches between plants. This led him to appreciate that animal disturbance could benefit as well as harm a landscape, and that this was how wild herds of grazing animals had maintained native grasslands.

The insight that sparked Holistic Management was that livestock could be made to act upon the land as their untamed counterparts had done. In practice, the holistic rancher constantly evaluates land condition and adjusts management accordingly. Doing this well depends on sharp and timely observation — just what tracking teaches.

For Savory, the African bush — even at midday in the dry season, when everything seems asleep — is alive and full of stories. He gleans the who, what, when and why of the land.

“When I walk around, this is what I’m looking for, to see what’s been visiting. Here’s a giraffe, a cow.” He explains that a bull giraffe’s footprint would be slightly larger. When I focus in, I can see that the giraffe’s hoof marks are more elongated. I picture the animal that created it: a lanky browser with an improbably long neck, shoulder muscles rippling as it runs.

“When you’re tracking, you’re always looking 20 yards ahead,” he says. “Then you look down to interpret a series of signals. You’re thinking, ‘Was there a wind in the night? What was the angle of the sun?’ You’ve got to be aware of every single thing. The weather today. The weather yesterday. You’re always asking, ‘Why was tracking easier — or harder — yesterday?’ What does that tell us about the condition of the land, and whether animals might be seeking water or shelter?”

A tracker is always observing, he says, “a lot more than people are used to, and coordinating it all instantaneously. Not consciously, more like a tennis player, who’s not thinking of how to hit the ball.” He kneels down. “This could be old hyena spoor, or baboon. It’s too windblown to tell.” We’re more than a mile from the main road, and it’s still and quiet, except for the soft chirping of birds. “Most people would drive by and say, ‘Oh, nothing is here.’”

Elephants and zebra, Addo, South Africa
Elephants and zebra, Addo, South Africa

Track to the Future
Tracking may not be dying, but rather being adapted for the 21st century. Liebenberg, for one, wants to make sure this is the case. He’s long noted the irony that while trackers have deep knowledge of animals and ecology, many are excluded from science because they cannot read or write. To that end, in 1997 he teamed up with a software developer to create CyberTracker, a hand-held GPS-supported device for tracking data collection. The interface features icons so that illiterate trackers can share and receive field observations.

The notion of tracking with a computer may seem at odds with the primal image of stalking prey in the bush. Yet Liebenberg says trackers have never shunned new instruments. “Traditional tracking was driven by technologies, like the bow and arrow,” he says. “That technology, however, is disappearing. Therefore, the CyberTracker would replace the bow and arrow as a driver of the actual tracking.”

One goal of CyberTracker is to bring dignity back to the craft by highlighting the value of tracking skills. And by making the program accessible to non-readers, CyberTracker offers a vehicle for employment to native trackers so they can maintain those skills. Like Savory, Liebenberg contends tracking can contribute to many fields, from research and conservation to crime prevention. Tracking techniques are useful when monitoring nocturnal or reclusive species. For example, CyberTracker has been used in surveys of river otters, which are difficult to count.

“Tracking is inherently part of animal conservation,” says Jean-Gael Collomb, executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Network, a U.S.-based support and programming non-governmental organization for conservation efforts in the field. Even with modern technologies, tracking skills play an important role, he says. When using radio collars on lions or wild “painted” dogs, for example, you still need to locate and secure the animal. At the same time, he says, technologies like radio collars can enhance effectiveness of traditional tracking grounded in local knowledge.

Kenya-based elephant ethologist and conservationist Joyce Poole agrees that tracking and technology can build on each other in a way that invites participation in conversation science. Her organization, ElephantVoices, has developed Mara EleApp, a smartphone app for monitoring elephant signs, sightings and mortalities. Categorizing the age of footprints, dung and rub marks on trees was made far easier by “sitting down with the Maasai and learning,” she says. The app invites citizen science to contribute to a database. “We can learn which routes are important to elephants, which areas should be protected to sustain their movement, and where elephants are being killed,” she says.

Allan Savory
Allan Savory

Tracking skills and tools are in demand to stop elephant and rhino poaching, which, regrettably, have reached crisis proportions. Both CyberTracker and Mara EleApp track animal movements to note vulnerable positions. Anti-poaching patrols use these tools to monitor poachers, such as holes in the fence or other places they might enter the park so as to pre-empt or even catch them, says Liebenberg.

The best poachers are, by definition, good trackers, he says, which makes out-maneuvering them a challenge. Liebenberg has helped to organize intensive tracking training for park rangers and is seeking money to upgrade the CyberTracker software to allow for two-way exchanges in real time. One reason, he says, is “so poaching syndicates cannot hack in. They have money to pay hackers to do so. The only way to get around this is to give people [in areas where there are rhinos] better jobs.”

In other words, rather than waning, the art of tracking may be on the verge of a renaissance — with high-tech apparatus replacing the trusted bow and arrow or spear.

Story was originally produced in partnership with Discover Magazine. Travel for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact

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The Curious Recovery of a ‘Threatened’ Bat Species

Essentially, everything forming the rationale for adding the bat to the endangered-species list was wrong.

Well, whadaya expect from a gdgubment job? — jtl, 419

By Rob Gordon   at the Daily Signal

A lesser long-nosed bat drinking nectar from agave blossom. (Photo: Danita Delimont Photography/Newscom)


If it were true, it would be good news.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s claim that the lesser long-nosed bat has “recovered” so well that it can be removed from the endangered-species list is definitely not worth the paper on which the proposed rule delisting it is printed. (At about $480 a page for 11 and a half pages, that’s about $5,500 just to print the fib.)

Worse still,  Fish and Wildlife may be seeking to eliminate potentially thorny legal problems that come with a federally regulated species by making threats to the bat along the U.S.-Mexico border just bureaucratically vanish.

When the Fish and Wildlife Service proclaimed the bat “threatened,” it asserted there were only about 500 of the species and that it had only 14 known roosts—places like caves or old mine entrances, where the bats congregate when not fluttering about. (Apparently, not all bats are opposed to mining.)

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Back in 1988, Fish and Wildlife contended that these low numbers, in combination with threats from livestock grazing and fires, were pushing the species toward extinction.

Lots More Lesser Long-Nosed Bats

Even Fish and Wildlife acknowledges that its original claim about the bat’s “threatened” status has been a subject of “debate as to [its] legitimacy… .” Now, it says there are 100,000 of these bats in the U.S. and even more in Mexico. There are not 14 roosts in the U.S., but reportedly 75.

This would be a big deal if these big numbers reflected successful efforts to improve the bat’s abundance or distribution, but they don’t. Fish and Wildlife states that the new numbers “in large part, reflect a better approach to survey and monitoring in subsequent years.” For those who do not speak bureaucratese, that means they were way off in the first place.

Further, Fish and Wildlife assumed cattle and fire to be serious threats by consuming the flowering plants that produce the nectar that these bats—which don’t eat insects—consume. Turns out, they were found not to be as problematic as the agency thought.

Essentially, everything forming the rationale for adding the bat to the endangered-species list was wrong.

The law anticipates that there might be such mistakes and provides a mechanism so the agency can make a correction if the data used to justify listing a species was wrong. For Fish and Wildlife, however, calling the bats a “recovery” sounds a lot better than admitting the error, and that is something the agency has a habit of doing (see here and here).

The Bat and the Border

Falsely claiming the mistake as a victory, however, is not the only thing troubling about Fish and Wildlife’s proposal to take the bat off the federal rolls.

The agency uses the word “border” only four times in its proposed rule and only two of those are in the context of threats to the bat. In other documents, the word “border” is sprinkled throughout like jimmies on ice cream.

In the species status review, the word “border” occurs about 60 times, with entire sections dedicated to the threat posed by border activities. The five-year review is similar.

The environmental movement has long claimed border security causes adverse impacts to endangered species, but this case is different.

The issue with the bat is not that a new wall or a fence would inhibit wildlife migration, that lights would disrupt nocturnal animals, or that any other particular border-security measure would somehow pose a threat to endangered species.

These documents reveal that illegal border crossings likely present the single-biggest threat to the species.

The Real Threat to the Bat

While Fish and Wildlife does not mention this in its proposed rule, according to underlying documents, “[o]ne of the most significant threats to known lesser long-nosed bat roost sites are impacts resulting from use and occupancy of these roost sites by individuals involved in illegal border crossings, both from individuals crossing to look for work and the trafficking of illegal substances.”

The service describes the impact illegal border activities on bat roosts:

“Mines and caves which provide roosts for lesser long-nosed bats also provide shade, protection, and sometimes water, for border crossers.”

“The types of impacts that result from illegal border activities include disturbance from human occupancy, lighting fires, direct mortality, accumulation of trash and other harmful materials, alteration of temperature and humidity, destruction of the roost itself, and the inability to carry out conservation and research activities.”

(Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

(Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Fish and Wildlife states that “[t]he colonial roosting behavior of this species, where high percentages of the population can congregate at a limited number of roost sites, increases the likelihood of significant declines or extinction due to impacts at roost sites.”

The agency spends pages detailing causes of roost-site disturbance that it describes as “the primary threat to this species,” and the vast majority is dedicated to the threat from illegal border crossings. All of the lesser long-nosed bat’s U.S. roosting sites are reasonably close to the border. (And, it’s worth noting that some of these roosts may be shared with yet another federally endangered bat, the Mexican long-nosed bat.)

While the bat population and roost sites were drastically undercounted when the species was listed, one of the few numbers that seems to have withstood the test of time is the number of maternal colonies in Arizona: three in 1988 and three as of 2016. (Inconsistently with the report’s narrative, the agency’s map appears to show more.)

The bigger the congregation, the more important it is to the species’ conservation, and the maternal colonies are by definition more vulnerable, as they are far fewer in number.

Information collected for a statutorily required five-year review of the species’ status reported threats to roosts along the U.S. southern border.

The assistant refuge manager at Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge warned about the impacts on roosts at the refuge and at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, both in Arizona. He said, “[t]here is evidence of illegal smuggling activities less than one-tenth of a mile from the mine adit [opening].

“We continue to be concerned that the fence will be damaged and the adit will be utilized by smugglers, possibly forcing the bats to once again abandon the adit.”

Fish and Wildlife reports that smugglers subsequently damaged the fence and that the roost site at the refuge was abandoned. While the warning dated to 2005, the agency states that recent data is still worrisome, as apprehensions of illegal border-crossers reported on the refuge rose 56 percent from 2015 to 2016.

Additional warnings regarded a bat roost at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The same Fish and Wildlife official reported numerous smuggling trails in close proximity to the mine entrance used by lesser long-nosed bats on the monument and that “given the paucity of maternity colonies in the United States, any loss is significant.”

While this warning also dated to 2005, the 2016 status survey states that recent data indicates apprehensions of illegal border-crossers on the monument rose from 3,418 in 2015 to 4,915 in 2016.

According to Fish and Wildlife, illegal border activities have, at least for a period of years, caused bats to abandon some sites, gates put up to protect others have been vandalized, and a mesh-screen covering at another roost site was easily defeated. Yet, even if the gates could somehow be secured, the species status review indicates that both installing and removing gates “had caused bats to abandon the sites” on Fort Huachuca in Arizona for years.

Further, the agency states that “current information leads us to believe that bat gates are not accepted as well by lesser long-nosed bats … .”

Just Disappears

The proposed rule to proclaim the bat recovered is more oblique.

It simply states:Gates are currently being tested at a few additional lesser long-nosed bat roost sites,” that “[g]ating of roosts on federal lands is being implemented and evaluated,” and that “[s]ome progress has been made toward protecting known lesser long-nosed bat roost sites.”

These statements indicate that Fish and Wildlife is hopeful the primary threat to the species may be addressed at some point in the future. Given the agency’s past behavior, such as keeping a plant on the endangered list a decade after discovering millions of them, this is a strangely easy-going attitude.

It seems like an endangered species can be used to shut down just about anything—except, perhaps, illegal activity along the border.

Perhaps the Supreme Court dictum that endangered species must be conserved “whatever the cost” somehow does not apply there.

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