Preserving the guile of African ‘San posse’

In the 1969 western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Paul Newman and Robert Redford are pursued by a posse of lawmen, among whom is a Native American tracker, writes Richard Collins

The fugitives try every trick in the book to shake off their pursuers but the tracker isn’t fooled. Although the historical Butch and Sundance were chased by many a posse, the film depiction is fictitious. But are similar feats of detection possible in the real world?

The San people have lived in southern Africa for over 20,000 years. They dislike being called bushmen, a name derived from the Dutch for “bandit”. The ability of San hunters to track animals, and read the signs of their behaviour, is legendary. They can often determine an animal’s size sex and relationships, simply by examining its footprint. Trackers can even work out what an individual might be doing at a particular location.

Many traditional hunters now work as safari and eco-tourist guides; some of those I’ve been with in Africa, and elsewhere, displayed remarkable field-craft skills. But as the hunter-gatherer way of life declines, knowledge developed over millennia is being lost. Is there a way to document and save this legacy for posterity? Larissa Slaney, of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, thinks so. In her studies of cheetahs in Namibia, she is enlisting the help of both traditional hunter-gathers and modern information technology.

The cheetah is the world’s fastest land animal. There were about 100,000 of them in Africa and Asia a century ago. According to a study published this month, only 7,100 remain. Over 90% of their habitat has been lost to human encroachment. Farmers, trying to protect their livestock, shoot cheetahs on sight or set snares to catch them. Many are killed for the illegal bush-meat trade and cubs are kidnapped to be sold as exotic pets. Cheetah populations have become fragmented, isolated from each other. This is leading to in-breeding and declining genetic variation.

Slaney hopes that, by having traditional hunters interpret photographs of cheetah footprints and codifying the techniques they use, new algorithms can be developed. She will then have a tool with which to identify individual cheetahs from digital images and determine their ages and sex categories. Most importantly, she may be able to work out parental and sibling relationships between animals. This “Footprint Identification Technique (FIT)”, she claims, is capable of doing so with “more than 90% accuracy”. If it works for cheetahs, it may be used for large animal studies generally.

FIT could help address another problem. Capturing large wild animals, and fitting geo-location devices on them for research, is intrusive, expensive and time-consuming. All trapping regimes carry risks for the creatures being targeted. Having a radio collar or a tag fitted must not alter the subsequent behaviour of an animal. If it does so, the data obtained is tainted; the marked animal is no longer representative of the population as a whole. Can we be sure that chasing animals with helicopters and shooting tranquiliser darts at them, doesn’t result in behavioural change? Determining blood relationships by DNA analysis of tissue samples is time-consuming and expensive. Digital pug-mark examinations, if successful, could reduce the need for much of this. Slaney thinks that FIT, being less invasive, is a more satisfactory way to identify animals and track their movements in the field.

Whether Slaney’s study proves viable or not, preserving the ancient knowledge of hunter gatherers is a laudable project in its own right. Butch and Sundance would not have got far with a San posse tracking them.

  • S. Durant et al. The global decline of cheetah and what it means for conservation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2017.


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