Tracking is believed to have been an early foundation of our scientific mind. Gathering evidence, proposing a theory and then testing the theory, to either prove it or disprove it.
The art is not as simplistic as following paw-prints, one after the other, to find the animal living its present life. On a good patch of sand one may discover tracks and with experience determine whether they are fresh enough to follow by foot speed. By observing the landscape, the direction of the tracks and the well-worn animal paths, one should be able to propose a direction and perhaps even an initial theory. Knowledge of the lay of the land, the location of water points, a behavioural understanding of the species involved and a history with the pride’s or individual’s habits will all contribute to the success of the theory.
We had been on the trail of a male lion for the last two kilometres. So far our job had been easy: he had walked a well-known path, and by his direction we were reasonably certain that his tracks were headed to a nearby water source or otherwise would pass by it on the way to the open plain beyond.
This allowed us to circumvent his tracks and move ahead on the route, giving us a chance of closing the gap to his current location. Our theory proved correct as we rejoined the animal path and soon picked up his tracks again.
Upon nearing the only surface water on the bend of a dry river, we found no evidence of him descending to drink. This gave us further insight into his thought process. The path he walked was not about water. Predators, including humans, are not like prey species that meander about the landscape, picking here and there at their food: they have an intention in mind and they move upon that agenda, taking the most efficient route to get there.
With the sun at thirty degrees over the open plain, we found his fading tracks turning from south to west along the edge of the plain and then disappearing onto difficult terrain. The possibilities had left a single, defined path and opened up, leaving us to regroup with what we had so far.
If he continued in a westerly direction, as suggested by his last clear track, then he would have taken an inefficient path to get to where he was going (there was a more direct animal path that would have led him to a location west of here). Lions are not known for inefficiency and for using energy unnecessarily. As he did not drink water, there would be no reason for him to use the path that he did - other than its efficiency to get to a destination. Why had he turned west after following an animal path that led him south?
Previously, just before sunrise, we had heard distant lion calls approximately five to six kilometres away from camp. It seemed likely that he was trying to locate his pride and was responding to their calls. Having walked approximately four kilometres, we assumed that the calls had originated further south of where we were. Facing in that direction, in the middle of the plain was a large wooded island. If he was trying to to bypass the island, from this location it would have made sense to round it along the western edge. Rather than follow west, we speculated that he would soon turn south again and cross the plain on the western side of the island. If he was going for shade on the island, then his tracks would have headed directly south, rather than first turning west - thus supporting our theory that he was moving to rejoin the pride.
During the kilometre walk across the open plain, the sun continued to rise and our conviction to the proposed theory began to melt with the heat. The terrain was difficult for tracks and he could have walked on any given bearing through the uniform expanse; however, we had not seen so much as a scuff mark. Could he have heard the calls of the pride upon reaching the open plain and turned west towards their direction? His tracks that had led us into the open plain suggested a constant gait, no stopping or deviating from the path to investigate hunting opportunities. This strongly suggested that his movement south was in response to their calls and therefore turning west must be a deviation. However, had he possibly caught sight of the pride on the move upon reaching the plain, and then turned west towards them? Had they called from the wooded island and then moved off west? Or was he perhaps moving upon their scent rather than yet responding to sight or sound of them? Alternative scenarios littered our attention. We only had enough time to investigate this one possibility; we stuck to our original theory and rounded the island to the far side of the plain. The rising heat was reducing the possibility that we might find the animal still on the move and with the amount of long grass around, it would be very easy to bypass a sleeping cat. Without any sign of tracks, he could be anywhere by now.
Then, as we crossed a small sandy patch on an animal path, we found one faint track of a lioness. Our optimism spiked. These must be the pride members that he was trailing. Not a hundred metres further and we came across his tracks, bisecting her orientation and continuing south towards the edge of the plain. Perhaps the pride had turned towards shade? We scanned the tree-line but found no sign.
We advanced and, within a few steps, impala alarm calls alerted us to predators on the move. We quickened our pace towards the impala, and there they were, reunited: a lioness and two male lions striding carefree from the southern edge of the plain back towards the wooded island for deeper shade. They had not seen us. We watched, motionless, as the impala snorted alarms and twitched nervously. The lions paced their direct line, unfazed by the commotion. We gazed upon the tension and the beautiful contrasts of nature – the relationships between predator and prey and the pattern of their tracks cutting through each other’s lives.