The master tracker

You’d expect Louis Liebenberg to be even more of a household name in South Africa than Laurens van der Post. He has spent far more time with the San. Even more important, he has devised a revolutionary system by which they and other illiterate trackers can record field data on a hand-held computer.

Liebenberg has been enthusiastically acclaimed in the international media.
BBC, CNN, Discovery Channel, Time, National Geographic have all done features on him and his CyberTracker. The Rl-million he received as a winner of the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 1998 went into developing his invention. And he recently secured another R20-million in funding from the European Commission to facilitate field projects around the world.

The Americans regard him as one of the world’s great trackers, while environmentalists the world over use his CyberTracker to monitor movements of animals: Sumatran rhinos in Borneo, dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico, snow leopards in the Himalayas and wolves in Alaska.

Yet in South Africa, outside of environmental and anthropological circles, Liebenberg is virtually unknown - except in Noordhoek, the Cape Town seaside suburb where he’s used his tracking skills to help police find gangs of muggers in their hideouts in the dunes.

Noordhoek is where I track down this brilliant but unassuming 43-year-old - in a cottage which doubles as his home and the offices of CyberTracker Conservation. There’s a giveaway clue in the carport: a rusted bakkie that looks as if it has spent too many long months in the Kalahari.

Liebenberg’s den is a typical bachelor set-up. Huge farm fireplace with friendly border collie. Not much furniture. Walls sparsely decorated with artefacts relating to the owner’s obsession, in particular skin hunting bags with bows and arrows given him by his San colleagues, and framed pen-and-ink drawings of animals that he does to illustrate his books, meticulously detailed and extraordinarily graceful. One of his three brothers is an artist, another a violinist.

Though affable and charismatic, he comes across as a bit of a loner obsessive, less at home in the city than in the desert where he spends so much time. None of his girlfriends, he tells me with a humorous glint in his blue eyes, has managed to last longer than about seven months.

Endearingly, he manages to appear mildly astonished at the enthusiasm with which the entire world has plugged into what has been his passion ever since the age of about four, when he first made the connection between the footprints in the Arniston dunes and the whereabouts of his friends, while playing hide ‘n’ seek.

Son of a Cape Town civil engineer who built many of the bridges on the Garden Route, Liebenberg studied physics and maths at the University of Cape Town (UCT), along with the history and philosophy of science.

‘Somehow I got into my head the idea that the origins of science lay in tracking,” he says. ‘The same intellectual and creative processes are involved. But I had to test my theory. So I went to the Kalahari, found a translator and then went from village to village looking for hunters who used bows and arrows and were dependent on tracking for survival.”

For the next 11 years he hunted with the San for periods of anything from three to nine months, living off his freelance illustrations and his work as a tour guide. He wrote two books on tracking, one of which has become the standard field guide to animal spoors.

‘I wasn’t trying to live out some romantic Eurocentric myth,” he says. ‘I paid the trackers for working with me. I’d supply the mealiemeal, sugar and coffee, while they supplied the meat. I was getting useful information and the least I could do was reciprocate.

‘They need work and recognition for their skills, which are crucial to conservation. Though most of them are squatters around government bases, they’re field scientists who often possess more knowledge than environmental scientists.”

Hunting with them, he noticed how the trackers compared footprints with images in their brains, as if they were looking them up in a mental database crammed with all the detailed information they’d acquired over the years. It occurred to him that this vast mind map could be of immense value to game managers and conservationists.

Since the best trackers are illiterate, the idea gradually crystallised in his mind of creating a digital database using pictorial symbols by which the trackers could record the animal and its behaviour on the spot.

Why not link it to a satellite, so the computer could pinpoint the position exactly? The information could be downloaded on a PC, processed to create detailed maps showing animal migrations or grazing habits and either used on a day-to-day basis for wildlife monitoring, game management and ecotourism, or stored for future research.

So the idea of CyberTracker was born.

The complex software was written by a young honours student in UCT’s department of computer science, Lindsay Steventon, while Liebenberg drew a complicated series of screen icons on which the trackers could tap to save the information - one icon for each animal, and one for each activity - feeding, sleeping, mating, whatever. Plus icons for the different vegetation, age of the spoor and so on.

Liebenberg is not as mind-boggled by the idea of Bushmen using computers as the rest of us. ‘It’s important to realise the San are not Stone Age inhabitants. They’re modern people who aspire to Adidas and tape decks.

‘All cultures adopt artefacts from other cultures. A hundred years ago the San were trading eggshell beads with people for arrowheads. Now they’re using palmtop computers to go tracking.”

His San friends saved his life once in the Kalahari, when he became dehydrated after running down a kudu for five hours in 40-degree heat. ‘I couldn’t drink the stomach water of the kudu because it eats a leaf that is toxic to humans, and there were no tsamma melons or roots in that patch. One of the trackers ran back all the way to the camp for water.”

Pushed, Liebenberg admits to having been charged by lions and elephants, and stalked by leopards and cheetahs. Indiana Jones evidently lurks behind that bespectacled scientist image. No wonder awed young environmentalists tend to regard him as a guru, and to crowd around the campfire to pick up the pearls of wisdom that fall from his lips.

Not that anything can distract this quietly spoken idealist from his numerous ongoing projects. One involves re-empowering trackers. He wants to make tracking an accepted profession, and has developed a tracker evaluation system, with a national qualifications framework, recognised by the Field Guides Association of South Africa.

His digital field guide to the De Hoop Nature Reserve near Arniston is another pioneer project that could also become an international first. Liebenberg is working on it with Xhosa tracker JJ Minye who, though he can’t read and write, has developed the theory that 90% of the eland’s diet comprises plants that black rhinos could eat. This could eventually lead to the reintroduction of black rhino in the area.

Meanwhile, trackers the world over are downloading the CyberTracker software from www.cybertracker.org.

‘It’s out there for free,” says Liebenberg. ‘We’re not in this for profit. Our aim is for CyberTracker to become a global environmental monitoring tool that will simply make the world’s conservation efforts that much more effective.” - African Eye News Service

Reading the minds of animals

CyberTracker Conservation’s communications manager, Anna Breytenbach, can talk to animals - much as San hunters have been doing since the beginning of time.

The fact that Anna Breytenbach is the niece of Breyten the writer/artist and daughter of Cloete the photographer (by the second of his four wives) is not something this fine-boned 34-year-old regards as particularly relevant to her life as an animal conservationist or as an animal communicator.

But there’s no getting away from it. The non-conformist streak that runs through her father’s talented family is there in abundance in Anna Breytenbach, evidenced by her extraordinary ability to get into what she calls the ‘mind-map” of animals.

This is not quite as off-the-wall as it sounds. ‘San hunters have been doing it since the beginning of time,” she says. ‘By picking up on the animal’s energy when they find its tracks, they can get into its mind and visualise its movements and location. They can do it even running at high speed. We all have the gift. We simply don’t know how to use it.”

A course she did in animal communication in California uses methods similar to the San’s and other indigenous cultures. Now Breytenbach can find lost animals by getting them to describe their surroundings to her, wherever they are. She prefers to focus on wild and captive wild animals only.

It was by chance a few years ago that she discovered her psychic powers had reached an unusually advanced state of evolution. ‘I was at a friend’s when I had what was then for me an extraordinary experience. I saw an old, arthritic cat sitting on a table trying to gather strength to jump down, and I felt so sorry for it. In my mind I said to it, ‘Where does it hurt?’ and it immediately turned round, stared straight at me and replied, ‘Are you talking to me?’”

Her work with wild wolves in North America was more conventional. She was part of a voluntary Wilderness Awareness School team sent to assist the Nez Perce tribe, custodians of the reintroduced wolves in the River Of No Return wilderness area in Idaho, the biggest road-less wilderness area in the United States. The tribe monitors the pack’s activities, location and movements.

Wilderness Awareness School was where Anna first heard about the revolutionary wildlife-tracking software package that had been developed by two people from her home town in South Africa. Jon Young, founder of the school, had developed a North American adaptation of CyberTracker, and it was being hailed by American experts as the most highly evolved data collection system for field researchers in North America.

Breytenbach attended the official unveiling to scientists, trackers and IT experts, which took place at a historic wolf conservation expedition in August 2001. Louis Liebenberg could not be there, but he joined one of the wolf conservation expeditions a year later and was introduced to Breytenbach by Jon Young.

She had been in the US for about four years, employed in the IT sector, but trying in vain to get a permit to work in wildlife conservation. So it wasn’t that difficult for Liebenberg to persuade her to return to Cape Town to set up the communications arm of CyberTracker Conservation, a job that would entail both administrative work and field trips into the Kalahari with documentary-makers.

‘Part of what brought me back is that there’s still so much wildlife worth saving here,” she explains. ‘In the States they’ve lost the plot. South Africans are very creative at finding ways for man to live side by side with animals. We can be an example to the rest of the world of how a small country with very few resources can harness the energies and do ground-breaking work.”

In Cape Town she does volunteer work for Annie Beckhelling at Cheetah Outreach. She has also initiated a tracking club of the kind that has become popular in the US, where enthusiasts go tracking bears and deer over the weekend. - African Eye News Service

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