Please would you briefly introduce yourselves
Richard (R): My name is Richard Zitha Mthabine. I am currently a Senior Tracker working at Kirkmans Kamp in the Sabi Sand. It is my ambition to continue to learn and improve and climb up the ladder to become the best tracker in the world!
Richard gets up and close with a horse at the lasso practice ground.
Andrea (A): My name is Andrea Mathebula Sithole. My family originally comes from Mozambique and the bush has been a part of my life forever. I now work at Londolozi Game Reserve, the same place where my dad has worked since 1984. My dream is to become a Master Tracker!
Andrea sets out for an early morning tracking session – focused and ready!
Tell us a little about your flight from South Africa to Brazil?
R: It was my first time on a plane so at first I was a little scared. It was a very long way and I could not believe that we were able to watch movies and listen to music the whole time. I enjoyed all the food and the drinks. It was an awesome experience. You might like to know that I took the special socks that they give you on the plane, and that after two months I still wear them all the time.
A: It was a cool moment. I have been on a small plane before, but never anything like that. That plane was huge. The scary part for me was when we left the land and started flying over the ocean. I kept thinking to myself that if the plane crashes now and I lived, I would have to swim a very long way. And I don’t think I could do that.
I enjoyed all the movies and the music and found it amazing that I could go to the toilet in the sky!
Andrea and Richard take up their seats in the South African Airways plane…emergency exit with extra legroom!
When did you attend the Tracker Academy, and what made you attend the year-long course?
R: June 2011 – June 2012. At that stage of my life I was not working and was looking for something that looked good for me. I had a passion for conservation and wanted to learn more about the wilderness. I was determined that through the Tracker Academy I could not only find a job, but find a career. Something which I could learn everyday and grow and develop.
A: January 2011 – December 2011. When I was young I used to visit my father at Londolozi. He worked out in the bush everyday. I was employed to work out in the bush helping him care for the land. This included making roads, cutting trees, burning fires and bush management. One day I saw a leopard whilst out in the field. I tried to follow the leopard, but I was not able to. I was frustrated because I knew that at Londolozi there were people who were able to follow the tracks and would have found that leopard…I wanted to be one of them. Luckily, there was a Tracker Academy course at Londolozi and they accepted me onto the course. I did it so that next time I would be able to find that leopard!
What do you enjoy about tracking?
R: I love to walk. I love to find an animal using only its tracks. For me that is the ultimate accomplishment.
A: My favourite part of this job is to find the track of an animal. I then love to age the track and try to tell as much about the animal as possible by just using the track. I then love to start to follow the tracks with the confidence that I am going to find it. Then after a while I do FIND IT! That is an amazing feeling for me.
Female jaguar track
What is the hardest thing about being a tracker?
R: The extreme weather. We work through all types: pouring rain, freezing mornings and dry hot days. It is tough at times.
A: The hardest thing about tracking is that you are not walking in the city; you are walking in the bush and can potentially come across dangerous different things at any moment. Things like ticks, mosquitoes, snakes and animals. It is also difficult because we wake up early all the time.
Track of a small snake crossing the road.
One of the methods we use to remove ticks is to use duct-tape to pull them off. Hard to believe, but if you look closely, you will see that every dot represents a single tick!
What is the biggest difference, in your mind between the Pantanal and the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, back in South Africa?
R: The animals themselves are very different. The animals here are not as dangerous when you are walking. Back in South Africa you have to be very aware…buffalo, hippopotamus, rhino, elephant, lion and leopard could be near. Here, in the Pantanal, there are not so many potentially dangerous animals to worry about.
A: My friend, the difference is the vegetation! Here there is a combination of very thick bush and lots of short cattle-grazed grass. There is also much more water here then back at home. From a tracking point of view in the Sabi Sand you have many different animals that help you with the tracking. We use the alarm calls of Impala, birds, monkeys and other things to help us out. Here, in the Pantanal, it is much more difficult as the animals do not tell us where the jaguars are hiding.
Aerial view of the Pantanal – the largest wetland in the world, and one of the most remote places too.
Jaguars vs. Leopards: which is more difficult to find?
A male jaguar, known to the project as Xavier, crosses the road in pursuit of a female.
What is the hardest thing about tracking jaguars?
R: The terrain in which they live! The vegetation here is very thick; there are also a lot of fallen leaves, which means that when we walk we make a lot of noise. The jaguars hear us coming from far away and run off before we can see it. Another difficulty is that there are lots of cattle, which will often run over the tracks making it hard to see where the jaguar went. Lastly, there is also lots of water, which the jaguars can easily cross, but for us it is impossible.
A: The terrain. Like Richard said it is tough here to find a good set of tracks and follow the tracks. Another tricky thing is the behaviour of the jaguars in that once they make a kill they do not rest nearby. They walk a very long way away from the kill. Leopards will not do this. They will stay close to the kill and thus make it easier to find.
Andrea tracking in one of the forests of Caiman Ecological Refuge
What has surprised you the most about jaguars and/or jaguar behaviour?
R: When a jaguar kills its prey it moves far away during the day. It has no competition has does not need to protect it’s kill! I am still amazed at the size of a jaguars track. They are huge. They are the same size as a lion.
A: I had heard that jaguars were very shy and that they would always run away. In the last week I have seen five jaguars and a number of them allowed us to get within 20meters of them. It is not they are not shy, but it is proof that the habituation work is working, and it is working quite quickly.
A male jaguar, known as Fantasma, tears apart the carcass of a cow.
You are training up two local Brazillians in the art of tracking. Tell us a little about how you train them?
R: First we have to find the tracks. Once we have a nice set of tracks I will discuss with the trainees everything that we can learn from the track. The age, the bahaviour, the direction, the timing etc. We then start to follow the tracks. Slowly at first. We look at each track and then move onto the next. I tell them to watch my entire body and see how I move. I train them to also track with their head up so that they might actually see the cat before they stand on it.
A: The first thing is to teach them about using all their senses. Tracking is not just about the eyes. You have to smell and listen. I like to train the movement of tracking. I like to try to get them to see things through the animals eyes. Once we find an animal we have to also ensure that the trainees know how to approach it, view it and leave it, all whilst being safe!
Nego, one of the trainee trackers, leads the way with the trainers behind offering advice.
Greatest single tracking moment so far in the two months you have been here?
R: I loved the time we tracked Esperanza (female jaguar). There were four of us tracking her as she moved into the deep forest. We had had tracks of two cubs as well, so we thought that maybe she was moving back to a den-site. We moved slowly and quietly. Adam moved to the left and into a small clearing. He nearly stepped on her as she lay in a clump of bushes. She growled and then leapt into the air. She ran away from Adam and charged towards Andrea and myself. She got quite close before she spun round and ran away. It had all of our hearts racing.
A: It was the time when we tracked a young male jaguar. We were on his tracks for over four hours. I could not believe how far he walked. It was hot and we had to concentrate to stay on the tracks. His movements were difficult because he did not walk straight. We went to areas that I have never been to. Finally we found him. It was incredible. It was one of the best tracking moments of my life. When we found him it was quite open, and he was only 25 meters away, so we managed to get a good look at the huge cat. He stared at us for a minute and then ran away into the forest.
What is your favourite animal, which you have seen in the Pantanal?
R: Jaguar…back at home I love leopards and here a jaguar looks similar.
A: Obviously Jaguars, but I also enjoy the Lesser Anteater. I had a magical moment of seeing a Lesser Anteater climbing a tree right in front of my eyes…it was wonderful.
The Lesser Anteater – without a doubt one of the specialities of the Pantanal!
Most memorable Pantanal moment?
R: Was seeing a puma (Mountain Lion) for the first time. Everyone else had seen one and I was worried I would leave without seeing the second biggest cat. One night we went out and sat at two carcasses. I could not believe my eyes when a female jaguar arrived, and started feeding, at one carcass, and then 50 meters away we watched a female Puma start to feed on the other carcass. There I was in a car parked between the two big cats of South America!
An exceptionally rare picture of a Puma as she starts to feed on a carcass no more then 50 meters from the car!
A: Going on a canoe for the first time. I had no idea how to get on it and was worried I would fall out. After a while I got it and started to really love it.
You will notice their approach to paddling was rather different – they could not work out how to turn around. They resolved this issue by facing in opposite directions, that way they never had to worry about turning as someone was always facing the right direction.
Best jaguar sighting in the last two months?
R: Xavier (male) and Esperanza (female). It was incredible to see two adult jaguars together and relatively relaxed. I loved watching them sitting, lying and then walking. Usually we have to work very hard to find the jaguars, but on this occasion, at 8am they were just sleeping by the side of the road. Awesome.
A: The sighting we had of Esperanza’s 4-month old cub. We managed to track this little jaguar down over the course of a few hours. We were not even 15 meters away when the cub showed itself. It was so relaxed that we all got great views of the cub. I will never forget that moment. What was also extra special was that the trainee trackers managed to find it…proof that our hard work and teaching was working.
Esperanza crosses the road in front of us. The forests provide the perfect setting for a day time retreat of a jaguar.
How has tracking changed or impacted upon your life outside of finding animals?
R: Before tracking I would never have had the opportunity to travel. I would never have seen Brazil, or probably ever have left South Africa. This is a wonderful opportunity for me. Tracking has also provided me with a constant job. As the main provider of a family this is important to me.
A: I have loved learning about different cultures, different people and languages. Before I was a tracker I never had the chance to meet people from far away. Now I meet people from all different walks of life. They teach me many things and I am becoming a better, more educated person. I am more aware of things now. I have also started getting into my photography. I love to learn how to take pictures and to capture my memories forever and to share with friends.
What are you missing the most about South Africa?
R: Very simple…my family and friends. They are very far away.
A: The food – I am missing pap. Here there is rice and beans everyday and I am not used to that. I also really miss my family and friends. I have a 3-month old son back at home and miss him a lot. I cannot wait to see him and watch him grow.
What is the first thing you will do when you go home?
R: To kiss my wife
A: I’m not telling you (laughing)
Interview by Adam Bannister