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The practice of tracking may focus on, but is not limited to, the patterns and systems of the local animal life and ecology. Trackers must be able to recognize and follow animals through their tracks, signs, and trails, also known as spoor. The skilled tracker is able to discern these clues, recreate what transpired on the landscape, and make predictions about the quarry. The tracker may attempt to predict the current location of the quarry and follow the quarry’s spoor to that location, in an activity known as trailing.
Prehistoric hunters used tracking principally to gather food. Even in historic times, tracking has been traditionally practiced by the majority of tribal people all across the world. It has been suggested that the art of tracking may have been the first implementation of science, practiced by hunter-gatherers since the evolution of modern humans. Apart from knowledge based on direct observations of animals, trackers gain a detailed understanding of animal behavior through the interpretation of tracks and signs.
In this way much information can be obtained that would otherwise remain unknown, especially on the behavior of rare or nocturnal animals that are not often seen. Tracking is therefore a non-invasive method of information gathering, in which potential stress caused to animals can be minimized. Some of the most important applications of tracking are in hunting and trapping, as well as controlling poaching, ecotourism, environmental education, police investigation, search and rescue, and in scientific research. The modern science of animal tracking is widely practiced in the fields of wildlife biology, zoology, mammalogy, conservation, and wildlife management. Tracking enables the detection of rare, endangered, and elusive species. In order to recognize a specific sign, a tracker often has a preconceived image of what a typical sign looks like. Without preconceived images many signs may be overlooked.
However, with a preconceived image of a specific animal’s spoor in mind, trackers will tend to ‘recognize’ spoor in markings made by another animal, or even in random markings. Trackers will always try to identify the trail positively by some distinguishing mark or mannerism in order not to lose it in any similar spoor. They will look for such features in the footprints as well as for an individual manner of walking. Often hoofs of antelope are broken or have chipped edges, or when the animal is walking it may leave a characteristic scuffmark. Experienced trackers will memorise a spoor and be able to distinguish that individual animal’s spoor from others.
The shadows cast by ridges in the spoor show up best if the spoor is kept between the tracker and the sun. With the sun shining from behind the spoor, the shadows cast by small ridges and indentations in the spoor will be clearly visible. With the sun behind the tracker, however, these shadows will be hidden by the ridges that cast them. Tracking is easiest in the morning and late afternoon, as the shadows cast by the ridges in the spoor are longer and stand out better than at or near midday.
Trackers will never look down at their feet if they can help it, since this will slow them down. Unless they need to study the spoor more closely, it is not necessary to examine every sign. If they see a sign ten meters ahead, those in between can be ignored while they look for spoor further on. Trackers must also avoid concentrating all their attention on the tracks, thereby ignoring everything around them. Tracking requires varying attention, a constant refocusing between minute details of the track and the whole pattern of the environment.
Although in principle it is possible to follow a trail by simply looking for one sign after the other, this may prove so time-consuming that the tracker will never catch up with the quarry. Instead, trackers place themselves in the position of their quarry in order to anticipate the route it may have taken. Trackers will often look for spoor in obvious places such as openings between bushes, where the animal would most likely have moved. In thick bushes they will look for the most accessible throughways. Where the spoor crosses an open clearing, they will look in the general direction for access ways on the other side of the clearing.