Sue Stockdale talks to Alex van den Heever, a wildlife tracker and author who worked for many years at the famous Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. He served in numerous roles, as a safari guide, tracker and ultimately had full responsibility for the reserve’s environment. Alex describes the ancient skill of tracking and how it relates to modern day decision-making. He shares the five interrelated activities involved in the tracking process: finding the right track, following, anticipation, losing the track and the encounter.
Alex van den Heever was born in Knysna, South Africa in 1975. At age 19, he began working at the world-famous Londolozi Game Reserve. During this time, Alex was paired with Renias Mhlongo, a local Shangaan tracker who grew up as a hunter-gatherer in the greater Kruger National Park. For 27 years the two have worked together tracking wild animals in Peru, Chile, Brazil, North America, Australia, China, and all over Africa. In 2003, Alex became the youngest person ever to be certified as a Senior Wildlife Tracker in South Africa. He is a director and shareholder of EcoTraining, South Africa’s leading guide and environmental training company.
In 2009, Alex and Mrs Gaynor Rupert founded the Tracker Academy, an award-winning non-profit NGO that trains indigenous wildlife trackers. Alex also co-founded Wild Signs, a company that developed the Tracking Success virtual adventure which uses the ancient practice of animal tracking to solve modern-day business problems.
He holds a NQF4 Lead Tracker and Professional Trails Guide qualifications, and a Diploma in Marketing and Business Management from Damelin Business School. Alex has published two books: the bestselling Tracker Manual field guide and Changing a Leopard’s Spots, a book about his working relationship and tracking adventures with Renias Mhlongo. In public engagements Alex speak alongside his friend and colleague of 27 years, Renias Mhlongo, in his language Shangaan, which he translates for the audience.
There are very few animal trackers left in the world. Southern Africa is one of the last places that people still track wild animals.
Historically tracking was used for simple reasons of survival.
As long as I remember, I’ve just wanted to be close to nature.
I’d done a year of a marketing degree and I was supposed to go back. I was gonna take a year off – that was 27 years ago. I never went back.
Renius was old enough to get me outta trouble, but young enough to get me into it.
Tracking is for the most part seen by the west as a very mystical, magical skill.
The top, most elite trackers in the world have the ability to balance detail analytical thought with creative holistic thinking.
Nature operates on relationships. The relationship between the rocks, the soil, the trees, the plants, the birds, the animals, everything is in. They are so intricately linked, and there are relationships there that are ancient and that are fundamental to the success of the system as a whole.
If man makes changes to the environment, nature doesn’t complain. It simply adapts.
Nature is just wordless. Because the animals that these trackers pursue are wild and cannot be controlled. And because the environment in which they operate is vast, there are no signposts. There are no algorithms. There are no consultants to talk to. They have to become aligned with the signs that nature is giving them in order to make good decisions.
To track well, you must put the animal in your heart.
I think if business leaders would adopt a similar decision making model, they could make better, longer term decisions, taking in not only just the detail, but how their decisions impact the environment.
Trackers give themselves time. They go slower rather than faster.
94% of those 220 trained in the Tracker Academy are now in permanent conservation jobs. All of whom were unemployed, many without hope.
This series is kindly supported by Squadcast –the remote recording platform which empowers podcasters by capturing high-quality audio and video conversations.
Alex Van Den Heever Transcription
Sue: Welcome to the podcast, Alex.
Alex: Thank you, Sue. Thank you very much for having me.
Sue: now, I’m excited to speak to you today. I’ve never spoken to an animal tracker before. I’m wondering what does that involve?
Alex: So, yeah, animal tracking or animal trackers there, there are very few of them left in the world. And obviously in Southern Africa is one of the last places that people still track wild animals. And that has been kept alive by the industry of ecotourism and generally wildlife conservation, tracking is the study of animals, footprints, and all their signs and putting that all together. In, in order to understand what the animal is doing and to be able to follow that trail of evidence and eventually catch up to that animal. So historically tracking was used for simple reasons of survival. People would go out and track animals and try and catch and kill them to feed themselves and their families and the trackers who did well at that ate well.
And the trackers who were poor at tracking suffered. But of course, with rapid urbanization, a worldwide trend in, in these days, people have moved away from landscapes where they have to get food that way in, by hunting and gathering as well as in our country, the legacy of apartheid removed people from their land and, and brought them into, into location. Where there was no opportunity to continue the ancient culture and tradition of tracking, which is very sad. And that’s why we don’t know exactly, but we’ve lost the vast majority of traditional tracking skills over the last 50 or 60 years. And that’s really the work of the tracker academy, NGO that myself and Renius Mhlongo and, and Gaynor Rupert co-founded in 2010. And the idea of the tracker academy is to restore this ancient skill for the benefit of wildlife conservation, and also to use tracking to do social good
Sue: Well, I’m sure we’ll get into that a little bit later in our conversation. Alex, I almost want to go back to the earlier part of your life. And I know you grew upon a cattle farm at that stage. Were you even thinking about animal tracking as a career or as a young boy, what, what, where did you think your life was gonna take you?
Alex: As, as far as I remember and as from the youngest age, I’ve always wanted to live amongst animals and be in wild places. I am not sure that my upbringing on the farm engendered that. It may well, have we lived, we lived on a farm in the south Cape coast at the foothills of the Tsitsikamma mountains, beautiful lush pastures, my parents and grandparents farmed Aberdeen Angus cattle.
And there was nothing, it was a very tame environment. Yes, it was a farm, but it was very tame by, by comparison to the Kruger national park and other big African wilderness areas. I’m not sure that, but I was surrounded by nature. But as far as I remember, I’ve just wanted to be close to nature. And I remember when I was in boarding school, I was sent to boarding school very early at the age of nine or 10 years of age. And I would stay out the window and just wish that, that I was in the Bush and, and I was checking and, amongst animals. So I’m not sure quite where that came from genetically somewhere. I know that my grandmother on my mother’s side was a, a fervent naturalist and she spent a lot of time in nature and maybe I got it from her.
Sue: Well, we never can tell sometimes where in our past these interests lie. I it was in 1995 that you joined the Londolozi game reserve as a, as a game ranger. Was that, would you say that was a pivotal point in your life?
Alex: Absolutely Londolozi spent 23 years living at Londolozi starting in 1995. I met, Renius Mhlongo who I’ve worked with for the last 27 years there. I met my wife, had our two children there. And it’s been a university for me in many ways. Not only because it’s a, it’s a game reserve where they’re wild animals but also meeting interesting people. And I was 19 years of age at that time, I I’d done a year of a marketing degree and I was supposed to go back. I was gonna take a year. off And that was 27 years ago. I never went back. And and so Londolozi my life there certainly had a profound impact on the trajectory of my life and particularly my career.
Sue: And I understand that you and Renius have got a, a really formidable partnership between the two of you in terms of ranger and tracker. Would you agree with that? And if so, what what’s made that special?
Alex: Well, I think someone else has to say that, but I do agree with this statement, but I appreciate the kind words. Yes. Renius and I were thrown together in 1995. We had no selection in each other. We were put together by the head ranger of the time. And I was 19 as I just said. And I think he, he assigned me to the most experienced tracker to try and offset this imbalance of inexperience because I had very little value to add to that job and very little knowledge, quite frankly, of that environment.
And so I think the head ranger. Put me together with this very experienced tracker to try and keep me safe A, and B brings some modicum of experience to the, to the safari and professionalism to the safari. But Renius and I have been together ever since then, our, our lives have changed that they’ve evolved together. People often ask why, why did you and re get, get along so well? And I’ve often thought about this and there are two things. One we both love to track leopards. We both loved leopards the animal, and I was so intrigued and so enamored with the tracking skill that I observed in rain. And his ability to produce a beautiful leopard sighting from a very obscure little pug mark on the ground two hours later.
And he was very open to teaching me and he could see that, that I wanted to learn his side of the job. I wasn’t just interested in taking photographs. Most guides arrive at these game. And their single objective is to meet wealthy people and take beautiful photographs, which is fine and noble. But I was, for some reason, different, I don’t know why, but , I used to get bored in the sightings. I never owned a camera. I was more interested in the, pursuing of the track, the tracking process to find the animal. Once we’d found the animal, I was keen to go and find the next set of tracks and, and not sit and watch it in the hot sun.
And then secondly, Renius and I share a very similar sense of humor. He’s a fantastic. He’s got a great sense of humor. He laughs a lot. He’s he’s he’s a tall man. He’s charismatic. He’s good looking he’s he’s just but great fun to be around. He’s warm. He’s personable. And I’d grown up in a family that I was sent to boarding school very early and in some ways he became a fatherly figure to me as well.
He’s, he’s old enough to get me outta trouble, but young enough to get me into it. , he’s 13 years older than me. And he’s got a youth, very youthful persona. And so we had a lot of fun together. We met lots of interesting people, but most importantly, we would wake up in the morning. We would want to go and find fresh leopard tracks, follow and find them. And that was what we lived for for a good eight years. And, we had a number of very interesting experiences, some dangerous experiences, some just, just very memorable ones. And I think those years cemented our relationship very early.
Sue: Now, you’ve got me intrigued Alex, to think about what the skill of tracking actually involves. cos I, I can get this sense of your desire and curiosity to want to follow a track, almost the journey and not the end point seems to motivate you more from what you’re saying. So what is the skill of tracking? What, what are you using?
Alex: So broadly speaking tracking has two components. The one is the study of the animals, tracks and signs. That’s very analytical. That’s the identification, the interpretation of everything from an insects track to an elephant’s footprint. And everything in between. And we want to know the difference between a beetle and a grass hoppers track, a male and a female leopard, a black rhino and a white rhino.
So there’s a lot of rational analytical thinking around that component of the tracking skill, the other, and more interesting for me anyway, side of the tracking skill is what we call trailing. That’s the following of a set of footprints. Let’s take, for example, of a lion, you find the fresh lion footprint and then you set off and you follow that animal’s trail of evidence. And you can imagine that animal can walk wherever it wants to it, it may not walk on soft, beautiful sand, like a dog does on the beach. It, I’m not talking about tracking in that way. This animal can walk over stony ground through long grass, thick Bush through water. And, the tracker has to display refined ability for refined observation skills to be able to follow that set of evidence and ultimately catch up and find that animal and view it.
And so, and tracking is for the most part seen by the west as a very mystical magical skill in fact, it is not, it is a legitimate skill, like soccer or cricket or golf. It, it has both a physical and a mental component. With deep practice can be mastered. At least, yes, some people have a greater aptitude for tracking just like people do in every kind of vocation. But the more one practice, the more one immerses oneself in nature and practices tracking the better one can get. And, and you can take people from the city and turn them into a reasonably competent tracker within a year.
Sue: Well, that was gonna be my next question is, , if somebody like me showed up to be in your tracker academy and learning the skills, what would you be looking for in the average person that doesn’t do that for a day job? I almost would like to use the word detective. It seems to me there’s something about, what’s the evidence that is being you’re, you’re aware of. That’s what I’m imagining. I’m imagining intuition and senses come into play here and also a dogged determination because it I’m imagining you’re gonna potentially lose the track as you go along. So that’s my, that’s how I imagine it being what would be the skills for somebody that’s the average person with no experience?
Alex: Yeah. I’ve studied at for many years, the, the, the best trackers that I can spend time within the world. And what I’ve noticed about the top, most elite trackers in the world is that they have the ability to balance. Detailed analytical thought with creative holistic thinking set, another way focused thought with diffusive thinking, focus thinking versus diffusive thinking rational versus creative and, and they have an very active imagination, but they are comfortable in the detail too.
And so I’m always interested to try in interviews for our students for tracker academy to try and understand whether. How much of these two areas. Do they have skills in in creative thought problem solving linking, seeking connections? Being aware, the ability to, to quieten the mind and evaluate the evidence as it comes to, as opposed to having predetermined ideas about what an animal’s doing or where it’s walking.
It’s very difficult and it’s, it’s part of my life’s journey to try and understand with people like. Geoff Trickey who, you know from a psychological perspective, what are the attributes? What, what are the competencies? What are the personality traits that make up the best trackers in the world? And, and, and we do understand some of, but there’s a lot of work to be done on, on that front.
Sue: I’m wondering if you’ve got any real life, examples of journeys that you can recollect and share with us. I know when I heard you speak previously, you talked about the story of the lost line cub. I’m sure there are many others. Give us an example of real life. What happens when you’re out?
Alex: Yes. Okay. I mean, I can tell that story. Let, let me start with a, another one though. Which is a bit more abstract. Many years ago, Renius and I had these V I P guests at Londolozi and they were there for, for one game drive. Normally people stayed for three or four nights. We had them for one game drive and they rarely wanted to see a leopard they’d flown in on their jet.
They’d come to Londolozi because they’d heard that they have a good chance of seeing a. They put them with Renius and I, but they gave us one four hour game drive to produce a leopard. So there was a lot of pressure on us, but fortunately poor us that morning game drive. One of the other guides had found a leopard that had killed a Bush buck, a small antelope, and there was still the majority of the, the carcass was still in intact.
The theory was that, that animal and that leopard would still be there feeding on its on its meal. And that wasn’t far from the camp. So we thought, well, that’s, it’s going to be easy. We’ll just drive them over and we’ll go and view the leopard feeding on the Bush buck carcass. We get to within about a hundred meters of, of where this bush buck and the leopard had been found.
And Renius stops me now the trackers sit on the front of the Landover on a little seat on the hood. On the front left hand side of the bonnet of the, of the safari vehicle. He stopped me and he. I think that leopard’s gone to have a drink. And, and so I said, yes. Okay. Maybe it was a hot day, but let’s just go and check where the leopard, where they found it and go, and, and he said, no, no, let’s just stop here.
Let’s have a look and see if we can find tracks on the road. Where the leopard has left the carcass and, and gone off, there was a water hole nearby that he he’d remembered there being. And, and so we, we got off the vehicle. I was rushing him a bit because it was hot and I didn’t want the guests to be in the vehicle for too long in the direct sunlight.
And we walked a few hundred meters and we couldn’t see any tracks of the leopard. So I said, it must be still there. Let’s just go back. Let’s drive in. And I noticed he. He was dragging his feet a bit, something was bothering him something that was so straightforward and conventional for me, he was not seeing it the same way we get back to the vehicle.
I start to drive off the road now to the right in the direction where the leopard was from the morning. And the next thing a tree squirrel starts to make an alarm. To the left behind virtually now behind the vehicle and Renius spins around on the, on the, on the tracking seat and says, stop, stop, stop, stop the leopards behind there.
I told you the leopard’s gone, turn the vehicle around. So, and he was, he was so forceful, and so sure of himself, like he had gave me no chance. Now I could virtually see the tree where the leopard had been in the. You wouldn’t let me go there. He said the leopards it’s it’s gone the other way.
It’s it’s left the kill. It’s gone for a drink. I turned the vehicle around and now we start heading in the direction of this very subtle squirrels alarm call being made. We get about halfway along. He says to me, you see that big Jackalberry tree. He says, head straight towards there. That’s where the squirrel was.
And we go a little bit further and he turns around to me again and he says, go faster, go faster. So I said, why? He says the leopards moving. So I said, how, how do you know the leopards moving? He says, listen to the tree squirrel. The tree squirrel is telling us that the leopards, he hadn’t even seen the leopard yet.
He’d known now known that the animal was not only there, but what it was doing. Anyway, we drive to this big Jackberry tree. We park no leopard. And I remember a guest on the vehicle says, says, Hey Alex, are we tracking squirrels or leopards . And before I could utter out some stupid answer, Renius clicked. And there that leopard came through the Woodland just up ahead.
And we had an amazing sighting. And so he had he’d interpreted from the squirrel’s call that the leopard was there. And then from the pitch and tone. Of when the leopard got up, obviously it heard the vehicle. So it, it felt a bit uncomfortable and sort of it decided it wanted a bit of space and it got up and the squirrel reacted to that.
And that’s just an example of the refined skills, the refined observation skills and knowledge of bird, language, and alarm calls that you only get with a long time close association, immersed life in, in nature to be able to make that kind of decision. And I’ve seen him make those decisions and make those calls again and again, and again, I tell people all the time, there’s only one person in, in my life that continues to surprise me after 27 years of working daily with him. And that’s Renius Mhlongo
Sue: What a, what a lovely story. What’s coming to my mind, Alex, as you’re speaking, is something about being in relationship with your surrounding, with the animals, with one another with your guests. What’s your sense of what intuiting from that from how you’re describing it to me. What would you make of what I’ve just said?
Alex: Yes, it’s an interesting question. It’s a great question. You know, nature operates on relationships, the relationship between the rocks, the soil, the trees, the plants. The birds, the animals, everything is in. So in intricately linked, and, and there are relationships there that are ancient and that are fundamental to the success of the system as a whole.
And I have been living in nature long enough to, to witness those relationships and to see how important they are and how clear they are and, and how they do change. If man makes changes to the environment. Nature. Doesn’t complain. It simply adapts. And at the end of the, at the end of the day, if our relationship with nature breaks down, we are only gonna do ourselves this favour. Nature will, will, will endure in some form or another. We are the ones that will suffer the most. And I think. From a relationship perspective, there’s nothing more rewarding than walking a journey to a deepening relationship, whether with another human being with an animal or a patch of wild land there’s nothing real, more rewarding. There are places that. You learn so much about yourself. There are places in Africa that I go to once a year or once every two years. And every time I go back to these places, whether to train trackers or to visit to friends or so on, I see myself in relationship with that place. And I it’s like a timestamp.
I can remember how I felt. I can remember what trauma I was perhaps dealing with. I can remember. My emotional state of being, having been in that place a year or two before. And that’s only because there’s a relationship here. And so I’m learning through my connection, learning about myself, through my connection with that piece of land. And I love doing that. I love going back after having been away for a while because it’s immediate. It’s like looking in the mirror. As you go there. And that’s, that’s how I would explain my relationship with some of these beautiful wilderness areas. But of course, relationships with human beings, whether your wife, your husband, a, a work colleague to me, long standing, deepening, robust relationships. Must be the most rewarding thing that we can get involved in. And I I take , the weight of the importance of relationships from what I observe in nature.
Sue: Mm, powerful words that you’re sharing Alex. I’m wondering, given that your environment is not the boardroom or the business environment necessarily your workplace that’s outdoors and in nature. For those listening to this podcast who may be business leaders, I’m wondering what, what are some of the skills or the qualities that you think they could learn from what you’re talking about and your experience in.
Alex: Yes. Well, I’ll go back to the track. Some of these master trackers or expert trackers really have unique ways of making decisions and going about their work. And because nature is just wordless. Because the animals that these trackers pursue are wild and cannot be controlled. And because the environment in which they operate is vast, there are no signposts.
There are no algorithms. There are no consultants to talk to. They have to become aligned with the signs that nature is giving them in order to make good decisions. And so. The best trackers in the world make holistic decisions. They are constantly taking in three elements of information when they make any decision.
The, the first is the detail. They’re all, they’re happy in the detail. As I mentioned early, they’re good at the detail. They’re analytical people. Secondly, they never make a decision without considering the environmental significance of that decision. So how does that work? So for example, if I’m tracking a lion and I, I can’t see its footprints, how do I know where it’s gone?
Where, where am I gonna go next? Because physically, you cannot see every single footprint. Because as I said earlier, they’ve walk on this difficult terrain where footprints are virtually invisible, but they’ve still gotta stay on track. They’ve still gotta stay on track. And, and how do they do that?
But one of the ways is that they are constantly thinking about. How is the landscape having an impact on that animal’s movements? How is it having an impact on that animal’s intentions, its motives. So for example, a hungry lion is going to go towards an area where there are lots of pray. A tired lion is gonna go to water and drink a lion that’s looking to link up with the rest of its pride. Will go into neighboring territory, whatever it might be, , the landscape and the inhabitants of that landscape have a profound effect on how that animal moves and how it decides on where to go next. And trackers always take into consideration that impact the impact of the environment.
And then thirdly and almost most importantly, And Renius has a, has a beautiful saying for this. He always says to track, well, you must put the animal in your heart. Said another way you must get in the skin of the animal. And really what that’s about is trying to understand that animal’s purpose. Trying to understand, understand its central motivating aim for going or doing what it’s doing and the answers to the questions around detail, the questions around how that landscape is affecting that animal and the questions around what’s its purpose. The answers to those three questions give the tracker color, give the tracker an understanding of the activity going on around him, and then you can make good decisions and business leaders. I think if they would take adopt a similar decision making model could make better, longer term decisions taking in not only just the detail, but how their decisions impact the environment. And ultimately, thirdly, what is the purpose of the decision? A lot of decisions are made. One really giving much thought to what is the greater purpose here. And so that’s where I believe that trackers can help business people.
Sue: It’s fascinating what you’re talking about, Alex. The one thing that strikes me from what you’re saying, there is about the use of time. And by that, I’m imagining a tracker must slow down sufficiently to take on board that information in business, sometimes I observe leaders moving very quickly. They get data from technology information and then they make very quick decisions and then they move on to the next thing. So it’s all about fail fast and move forwards. My sense is, from what you’re describing is it’s somewhat different to that in the tracking process. It seems to me to be allowing time for. Observation and thinking.
Alex: Yes, that’s that’s right. They give themselves time. If I had to answer. Question and with one with one answer would be that they go slower rather than faster. That being said, though, they are, they guided by their environment. So when the tracks are clear, the soil is open. The Bush is clear. There’s no immediate danger. They can move faster. But if the checks are, are no longer clear and they obscure, they slow down and they start to look for other information that can help augment. The detail on the ground. If tracks go into very thick Bush, they’ll slow down because there’s a, the risk element starts to be elevated.
You, you don’t wanna walk into a lion with her tiny Cubs in thick Bush and surprise her there. That’s very dangerous. And so in many ways, the tracker’s time. His, his cadence. Is dictated by the structure of the landscape and what’s happening and how much information is available to him. Trackers won’t go quickly. If, if it’s risky and they won’t go quickly, if they don’t have all the information
Sue: Yeah, that seems very important you’re already giving us so much more in depth insight into what a tracker does and the skills. Have which then leads me on to want to know more about the tracker academy and what that is. And how did you set it up and how do people learn?
Alex: So. When Renius and I were working together as guide and tracker, it became clear to me that Ren could do things, tracking things that other trackers could not. And we started to have a conversation about how do we ensure that this ancient skill is handed to the next generation and that doesn’t die out completely when people like Renius eventually retire and bear in mind. Renius is one of the last generations to be raised as along the lines of the traditional hunter gatherer of Shangan people. And so there no more left, no more people that were raised in that same privileged situation as Ren was. And so what’s left only is therefore for us to formalize the training of trackers.
In order to restore this ancient African knowledge and skill. And in 2009 Renius, and I resigned from our jobs at Londolozi. And we went into the Chilli wind of unemployment with a dream, a dream to start a school that would do this, that very thing. It would restore tracking skills. And we traveled around the world, funding our passage by teaching tracking in places like north America Australia. India to try and raise money to start the school. And I’m afraid after year of travel, we didn’t have a single dollar to show for our efforts and on the beach, back in my hometown, on the coast of Battenberg bay, I remember saying to my mother that I think I need to phone Renius and tell him we need to go and get our jobs back at Londolozi because we had failed.
We really had failed. There’s no other way of saying it. As fate may have it. A good friend of mine introduced me to the Rupert family who, who are a very wealth wealthy and influential family in, in South Africa. And long story short, I met Mrs. Gaynor Rupert and and we did some work with her and she agreed to fund and found the tracker academy.
And that was in 2010. And we received our first eight students since then. So we’ve been going at the end of this year. We would’ve been going 13 years. We’ve trained just over 220 trackers. And this is a statistic I’m most proud of. 94% of those 220 are now in permanent conservation jobs. All of whom were unemployed, many without hope.
Living in rural villages, close to wildlife areas, jealously staring through high fences, seeing people driving around and, and viewing animals and staying in fancy lodges. And now 200 of them because they are be trained as trackers are now employed in the conservation industry, either anti-poaching or an eco tourism, animal monitoring and other areas. And so that’s the work of the tracker academy. We are an NGO. We are entirely donor reliant. The, the, the, this hyena on my chest here is our logo. I thought by using the hyena, no one would want a hyena as their corporate logo. But it’s, it’s the, it’s the biggest, it’s the best tracker in the animal kingdom and it’s actually an extraordinarily good caretaker of the next generation. So in many ways it shared the philosophy of the next, developing the next generation of, of trackers in this instance. And it’s been people have said to me, which advertising agency helped you develop that brand.
It was just a photograph I took and had it traced onto a shirt. And it’s become really, it’s become really synonymous with the tracker academy and, and tracking in Africa. And so that’s the work of the tracker academy. We’ve just opened a new division called rhino guardians where we are training trackers specifically now to protect rhino man tracking which, and we are hoping to make a material impact and try to. Reverse the trend of losing rhino in, in Africa. Mm,
Sue: So it’s marvelous what you’ve accomplished in that space of time, Alex, and I think what you’re reminding us of is that ancient skills are still valuable in modern day.
Alex: exactly. Right. And that’s exactly the point. Sue, this is an ancient skill, possibly a hundred thousand years of old that’s that has still got relevance in modern conservation efforts. And as I’ve spoken to you earlier, I think has relevance in the boardroom too. I think business leaders can learn to adopt the tracker mindset, the tracker mentality.
There’s a, a particular process. To tracking a lion that is in no way different to tracking a customer or a strategy or a project. And that that process can be discussed. It can be internalized and it can be used by corporates to better track whatever they are, track, whatever objective they’re tracking. And so I think there’s a lot that, that the, the modern world can learn from this, this almost forgotten ancient skill of tracking in.
Sue: Well, you know what I want to ask you next? Of course, what’s the process.
Alex: Okay, I’ll give you a, a brief explanation of the process. The process involves five interrelated activities, and each activity is reinforced by a particular mindset. And these activities sometimes run in parallel. They’re not clear cut. That’s why, , they interrelated the first step or first activity is to find the right track. So the tracker wants to find the freshest track that that’s gonna give him the best chances of success. Getting started on the wrong track can have far reaching consequences. And I think that’s true for anybody in any situation.. The mindset. There is a very healthy dose of discernment, a the mindset of discern. In spending time finding the, the right track to follow. I see this with inexperienced trackers, they’ll jump off the vehicle and, and want to follow the first line track. They see on the ground, a guy like Renius will pass up two or three opportunities to track lions. He’s, he’s looking for the, the freshest track. That’s gonna give him the best chance of success. Secondly, once you found the track, you now want to start following you. You are literally following footstep by foot. Now that requires refined observation skills. Some, as I said, some tracks are very, are very subtle. You’re not only following footprints. You’re also following urine marks droppings. Territorial marks feeding signs, all kinds of signs, alarm calls by other animals as in the case, I just gave you so that, and that requires a lot of a curious mindset. People, the most curiosity comes into it there.
And, tenacity, you know, as you said in the beginning of the, of this interview, Sometimes it gets really difficult and you cannot find your next piece of evidence and you’ve just got to continue. You’ve gotta per persevere. And you’ve gotta be extra curious because there’s almost nothing that’s irrelevant when you’re tracking it’s, it’s all about prioritizing what’s most relevant, but it’s all relevant. So that’s the following you’re following until, and you’re walking along a, a trail of evidence effectively the next and, and the next activity would be at some point.
The tracker is unlikely to be able to out walk or outpace a lion. At some point, you’ve gotta close the gap on that animal. You’ve gotta anticipate and, and leapfrog ahead and try and get closer to that animal and try and. Return on energy. And that requires creativity that requires holistic thinking. And that goes to what I was talking about earlier. That’s when you are looking at the detail, you’re looking at the animal’s purpose, you’re looking at how the landscape is impacting that animal’s behavior and the answers to those three questions. Give the tracker, the picture mental picture of what’s going on.
They can then form a hypothesis of where the animal is and they go and they leapfrog ahead and they test that hypothesis. Remember when you’re tracking an animal until such time, you find that animal, you are basically always in beta mode, you’re only in, you only really launch once you found the animal. And so that’s, it can be quite frustrating, but the closing of the gap is important. It requires a creative mindset, an innovative mindset, an intuitive mindset, a holistic way of thinking. Very much big picture looking at all the data now, looking at all the information and forming a theory about what this animal’s doing and then testing that theory and having, and having the courage to do so.
But like anything you track in life, at some point you’re gonna go off track, you’re gonna lose the. That is just inevitable. I don’t think I’ve ever tracked a lion or any animal for that matter where at some point we haven’t lost the trail altogether. And that requires a lot of courage to confront the facts that I’ve now I’m off track.
A lot of trackers will pretend to track a lot of people pretend to go on. And so. You need to be bold. You need to be you need to be very aware of your mental biases about what, what you’re doing, what information is is important to you and what you’re seeing. But trackers make use of two very logical, very basic methods to get back on to regain a lost track.
One is either you go back to the last point, you were on track and start again this time with extra care for the detail. Or you decide, you know, I’ve been on this trail for long enough. I have a good sense of where this animal’s going and I’m going to anticipate I’m gonna leapfrog and, and I’m going to back myself to be able to cut the tracks up ahead some and that’s speculative and better trackers get quite good at doing that when they lose the trail.
But the, there there’s a whole mindset around losing track. Lot of people when they lose track in life, They become despondent or they become angry or they want to assign blame. The tracker never does that. He is 100% accountable to losing that track. He simply goes back and goes again, a he has the courage and the honesty to confront that he’s off track and B he’s gonna look at the detail he’s gonna, he is gonna make assessments based on.
And he’s gonna go again and he’s gonna be tenacious. And then the fifth element is if you’ve done all this well enough for long enough, you’ll hopefully have an encounter. The encounter is the final activity where you finally find that animal or that objective, or that goal that you set out to track and find, and that’s important, the encounter is essentially a trust building opportunity.
When you find that lion you want that encounter to go well, you don’t wanna upset that lion because it can either come and do, do physical harm to you, or it will turn around and run away and you lose your relationship with it. You’ll lose your encounter with it. And so you want the encounter to go well, because if the encounter does go well, it sets up greater opportunity for future tracking success.
And the mindset around the count encounter is one of gratitude and respect. And so really those are the five elements of the tracking process, the five interrelated activities and what’s most important there. Is getting the mindset right at the various phases of the tracking process. And, what I’ve just explained to you, we call the tracking success pathway and we’ve applied the pathway many times in business and it’s, it’s astounding. How many people, how you can use it and you can make use of it to track and find whatever is important to you in your life, or indeed make sense of what’s going on around you in.
Sue: Well, I’m glad I asked you that question, Alex, cuz you’ve just given us so much rich information about the process and I’m sure for our listener who may not be in the world that you inhabit if they’re in the world of business, they can think about how that applies to them. Finally, since we are called the access to inspiration podcast, I’m wondering who or what inspires you.
Alex: Nature inspires me, animals inspire me. Many conservationists inspire I’m I’m inspired. I’m inspired by a man called Dr. Ian player who passed away sadly a few years ago, who started the wilderness leadership school. And he had a wonderful relationship with a Zulu man called Magqubu Ntombela and, and I really do look up to his work.
He was, he was instrumental in saving the rhino from extinction in South Africa in the 1960. And, and he was instrumental and reversing that trend. And here we are, you know, 60 years later back at it. And so I often I’ve re reread his books. I’m also inspired by a man name of Dr. Ian McCullum. Who’s a, the mentor of mine. Who’s a psychiatrist. a conservationist a poet and a wonderful man who sees the, the value of nature in all of our lives. And and so, so I, I’m not sure if I have a single person, but there’s, it’s an array of people and, and, and experiences.
Sue: Well, you’ve wonderfully role modeled. In a way, the intention of our podcast as a whole, because we aim to bring a diverse range of guests for our listeners. And I think you’re describing in a way that same similar approach one person isn’t necessarily the only. Person that can inspire us. We can all take learning and that inspiration from different places. I’ve learned so much from you today, Alex, and if our listener is enjoyed this conversation as well, how might they find out more about you and the work that you do?
Alex: I’m involved with three websites. The one is Alex and ren.com. That’s reus in my personal website and a blog. Then we have tracking success.tv, it’s a virtual adventure we’ve created where we, we take people tracking. We take, we take corporate senior executives and corporate groups tracking in the boardroom virtual. And we put them in the boots of an actual expert tracking team. And we asked them to make the same decisions that the trackers had to make on the day. And those decisions have consequences. You can read all about that on tracking success.tv. And then of course, the tracker academy, NGO is trackeracademy.co.za. That’s a, a website dedicated to the work of the academy.
Sue: Wow. We’ll put links to all of those things on our show notes. It’s been a wonderful conversation with you today, Alex, I’ve learned a lot by what you’ve said, and certainly I’m gonna go off and think about how I engage with the wider system around me in a completely different way, thank you so much for your time.
Alex: It’s a great pleasure. Thank you so much, Sue. Thank you for having me.
Sue: Well I hope you enjoyed this episode and its given you some new insights and cause to reflect and think. Remember you can read a transcription of this and all our other episodes on our website at accesstoinspiration.org We will be back in mid-January next year with a new series and in between now and then we will showcase some of our earlier episodes for you to enjoy once again. I hope you stay connected with us.
Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra (he/him)
Producer: Sue Stockdale (she/her)