Applied Holistic Science: Tracking as a Training Tool

The line of tracks were turning into round dimples under the falling snow. A track is simply a disturbance, a change to baseline, and these tracks were clearly the footprints of a four-legged animal – coyote or bobcat came to mind. Under the rules of the CyberTracker evaluation I could not use a measuring tape or explore beyond the test area for additional tracks and signs to identify the maker of the tracks. The evaluation included 50 test questions in total, and the steady fall of snow in the Cascade mountains of Oregon, U.S.A. was adding a layer of challenge I had not trained for.

A certified Master Tracker has completed a CyberTracker evaluation with 100% accuracy. Inspired in the 1990’s by an indigenous Kalahari tracker – !Nate, and a Harvard Associate of Human Evolutionary Biology – Louis Liebenberg, the CyberTracker test was developed to evaluate and communicate an individual’s tracking ability. The test originated to encourage tracking as a paid profession and allow the San Bushmen or Kalahari First Peoples, to get jobs in ecotourism, wildlife monitoring, scientific research or as rangers in anti-poaching units. With a long history of tracking as traditional hunters, the Kalahari First People were able to verify their skills as expert trackers through the CyberTracker evaluation without the need for a degree, or to read and write (Liebenberg, 2013).

Tracking first intrigued me as a child reading Tom Brown Jr’s book The Tracker in elementary school. In 2008, I had the opportunity to attend a class at Tom Brown Jr’s Tracker School and I was hooked by Tom’s infectious passion for tracking. Tracking is great fun and it’s a joy to connect to the bigger picture of what’s happening in any given environment, but it is the process of tracking that most intrigues me. Tracking is both an art and a science that requires detailed analysis and imagination; in other words, it is a holistic science. A holistic approach values and weighs information from multiple ways of knowing, including the analytical and intuitive, or so called right and left brains.

Cybertracker question #22: Who made these tracks and at what gait? The size of the snow dimple, the evenly spaced stride, and the way it meandered through the tall, coniferous forest could have been either canine or cat. Clear evidence of decisive digits or claw marks were long gone under snowfall. My hand hovering over the track I cleared my thoughts for a moment to see if any feelings, images, or words came to mind as I recreated the movement of the animal in my mind’s eye. The tracks had the feeling of cat, but my gut had been wrong before. I did not want to stake my conclusion entirely on intuition. We were close to a busy highway and a steady stream of cross country skiers and their domestic dogs moved nearby. Coyote seemed more likely based on a rationale that bobcats tend to be more secretive, however, I had been burned by answers based solely on rationale too. With the clock ticking and snowflakes accumulating, I made a decision. I whispered “coyote” to the person collecting test answers and moved on to the next question.

CyberTracker question #23: “What animal is it and which direction is it going?” Glancing at the tracks stretched across the top of a fallen log I immediately knew it was bobcat, and that this was the same animal I had previously dubbed coyote in question #22. Aware of my first impression, but cautious not to trust that completely, I scanned the area for tracks and sign to support/negate my hypothesis of bobcat. The round tracks were too snowed in for detailed analysis but were in a line of direct register prints. I could see where it had walked around a branch sticking out of the log and sat before jumping to the ground and heading West. The track size, gait, behavior and my intuition all screamed bobcat. I gave my answer and participants gathered as a group to review answers to the questions in the area with a Master Tracker. We went through the entire scientific process from our hypotheses, data analysis, conclusion and debate with peers all within a fifteen-minute window. It was indeed a bobcat. Data I had once gathered for a university research study took decades to yield conclusive results. By comparison, basic wildlife tracking is a speed science.

The relatively quick answers that a Master Tracker can give in response to questions about tracks and signs, lends tracking as a valuable tool to develop accuracy in analytical and intuitive muscles of perception. Beyond the utility of tracking in conservation biology, search and rescue, hunting and environmental education, tracking may serve as fertile ground to train in Holistic Science.    

Tracking is not necessarily a linear process, however. To identify an animal or a series of movements through tracks a process occurs that could be described as parallel to Goethean observation methodology – a method of inquiry regarded as holistic. Both require intense attention to detail and precise imagination (Table 1). Tracking is much more than identifying who left a footprint on the ground; it includes awareness of the landscape as a whole. “To understand the track is to understand the animal and its relationship to the land. It is also to understand our own place in the natural world (Brown, 1999, p 10).”   

Table 1. Science as a replicable process of inquiry from three different lenses.