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How To Look For Spoor (An African Experience of the late 1800's early 1900's)


F. C. Selous DSO
May 5, 2011
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How To Look For Spoor
by Captain Chauncey Hugh Stigand (1877 - 1919)

In the last chapter we have suggested that the true hunter will endeavour to learn as much as possible of woodcraft, and should have the ability to do his own tracking when need be.
We will now endeavour to show how he should begin to do this. It is as impossible for him to learn how to track from a book as it is to read a book on cricket and be able to play immediately. For both he needs years of practical experience, but we will attempt to put before him the chief points he should notice, and the lines on which his observations should be based.
He should learn as much as he can of the languages of his native hunters, so that he may profit by their knowledge and experience. The first words he should learn are the names of all the animals likely to be met with, and those for such common things as spoor, blood, male, female, wound, bullet, tree, near, far, stand, gallop, &c These will take him some way.
When he sees a track he should ask to what animal it belongs, and every time the natives see a track which he does not, he should make them point it out to him. Just at first many tracks will look the same, while others of the same animal will look different. He will soon, however, distinguish the different forms of tracks that various animals leave, independently of their size. He should try as soon as possible to form an idea of the size and shape of the track of a full-grown bull of each species. The spoor of the young animals are generally more confusing, as they do not seem to assume their characteristic shape till full grown; but this is the less important insomuch as it is presumably the full-grown bull that it is his ambition to shoot; and, moreover, where there are young there are almost certain to be one or more adult animals. As an example of the difference between the character of the tracks of the young and the full-grown animal of the same species, compare those shown of a young eland with that of the bull. In other buck the spoor of the young has an unformed appearance, which shows it to be that of a young animal, and not a full-grown one of a smaller species. A collection of the spoor of full-grown animals of different species has been made in the hopes that they may be useful to the beginner; but we regret to say that, although they have been drawn to scale from carefully-chosen impressions, they do not show the resemblance we should have wished. The reason for this, we are inclined to think, is that the spoor when committed to paper is too clear and well defined, and that the only way to convey a true impression would be by making a plaster cast.
The reader must also bear in mind that, though the spoor is the actual size, as he will discover for himself if he troubles to compare their measurements with the mean of those of two or three dozen full-grown animals, they look bigger than the original.
The spoor we have drawn is as nearly perfect as we could find, a place where an animal has crossed a bare patch or pathway being generally chosen. Such a spoor is, perhaps, not seen more than once or twice during a whole day spent in following an animal, it generally being necessary to decide what the animal is from an imperfect representation, but it is necessary to learn the appearance of the whole thoroughly before one can hope to recognise it from the part.
When one has the general appearance of the spoor vividly ingrained in one's mind, the imagination instinctively fills in the parts missing from an imperfect impression, and this often leads the eye to catch some faint lines in other parts it would otherwise have missed.
It is not merely necessary to be able to recognise the spoor, by far the most difficult part is to see it at all. In walking in the bush one should always go very slowly, as there are four important things to be done at the same time.
Firstly, to keep a continual look out in every direction, to see any game the moment it becomes visible and before it has seen you, in itself no mean feat in thick country; secondly, to watch the ground in front and on either side of you for spoor ; thirdly, to walk noiselessly; and, fourthly, to listen for any sounds which might betray the presence of game, not to mention looking out for antbear holes, game pits, stumps, buffalo bean, and other impediments.
The main difficulty in seeing spoor is to recognise it in every guise it assumes in ground of varying hardness and different types of country, and at the different speeds an animal is moving.
Till one begins to see them unconsciously it is best to be continually thinking how a spoor would look if it were in a special patch of ground you are looking at.
Putting aside tracks in muddy ground, and the galloping buck on hard bare soil, which is obviously apparent, we will try and describe some different aspects they assume.
There is a very shallow, faint impress which an animal often makes in a thin layer of gritty sand in hard ground. This is absolutely invisible looking straight down upon it with the sun overhead, as there is no shadow or relief to catch the eye, but it may be seen obliquely several yards away. Such a spoor is often seen on native pathways where the hard path has a thin layer of gritty substance on the top of it.
In such a case it will almost always be noticed that, whereas it is nearly or entirely indistinct, when looked at from one side of the path, it is quite visible from the other, according to the position of the sun.
On recognising such a soil, one should scan it from a distance rather than looking down on it as it is passed over.
Then there is the hard, bare soil in which the galloping tracks could not be missed, but where an animal walking slowly leaves only a sharp, inverted V-like cut of the fore part of the hoof, and sometimes only the very tip. This looks like two sharp cuts made on the ground with a knife.
On rocky ground one would be unlikely to notice any track, and if one did would be unable to tell to what animal it belonged, and close observation of such ground would not repay the time and labour involved. If it was necessary to follow a track over country of this kind, such indications as a small stone, perhaps only the size of a pea, being dislodged and showing the place on which it had rested, or lying with its earthy side up and weather-beaten surface turned over, or lichen rubbed off the rock, or some small blade of grass in a crack bent down or bruised, are to be looked for.
There is another form of spoor occurring on hard, dry soil, sometimes made by buck, but usually by lion, rhino, and the softer-footed animals, and that is a slight brushing of the ground with the pad, dislodging a little dust and giving the soil a faintly lighter colour than that surrounding it.
The reader who has not followed rhino may be somewhat amused at the thought of looking for any trace so faint of such a large and heavy animal, but we assure him that, though easy enough to follow in most country, such a faint mark is often the only indication that the ponderous beast has passed.
In addition there is soft, dry sand which falls in all round the track, leaving no clear impress or characteristic shape. Spoor, as described above, occurs generally in bare red soil, interspersed with trees, bushes, and clumps of tall grass.
Before leaving this type of country we will mention that it is generally the habitat of the white ant, and that the animal passing over it often treads on an earth-covered twig or little pyramid built by these insects, where the broken earth is easily seen.
Now let us turn to the more overgrown parts. There is first of all perhaps the easiest of all country, the fresh, short, green grass which is trampled down or bruised, showing where the animal has passed.
In such a place it is not necessary in the first instance to look for the spoor, but the line of drooping heads pointing whichever way the animal has gone. On seeing this, a closer inspection of the soil underneath should be made to see by the spoor what the nature of the animal is.
When the grass grows longer and thicker, though still green, the trampled line is there, but the grass must be carefully parted to see where the animal's foot has gone through and left its impress on the soil below.
Where the grass is very thick, it needs a little practice to select the exact spot where the foot has been put down.
In tall, dry grass, growing in clumps, often 12ft. high, generally on red soil, the spoor is much like that described before, but the view is limited.
Here it is necessary to push the grass right and left between two clumps to see beyond them.
There is generally no trampled grass to be seen, as the animal has pushed his way between the tufts, and there will be so much grass bent down by wind and other animals as to cause confusion. Often a bunch of dead grass has to be carefully lifted up where it is thought that an animal has trodden the grass into the soil.
Perhaps the most difficult country through which to follow game, for one would never go there by preference or to look for spoor, is the real elephant grass, tangled and matted, such as one finds near the banks of a river, or in low-lying spots where the ground has held the moisture of the rains well into the year.
Here it is either so thick that the noise made crushing through would scare any game away long before you got near—the view being limited to the distance, you push the grass and reeds aside—or else it is trodden down in well-defined runs by elephant, rhino, or buffalo. Along the well-trampled dead grass of these paths it is almost impossible to tell whether anything has passed recently or not.
The grass in these localities is generally tall and dry, as it does not burn until late in the season.
The larger game have continually to be followed through this ground, and it will be found that if they enter the untrampled portions the track can easily be seen, but when they enter an elephant run the only thing to do is to follow up the run, and every time another path branches off to patiently search both for any sign.
Often under the thick layers of dead grass in the pathway there are little blades of green grass shooting up, and by lifting the dead grass it can be seen if the tender shoots underneath are bruised or not.
Sometimes the grass is too thick for this, and one has to follow up one of the two turnings on chance, and after going a short way the smell of the animal may be perceived in a place where he has stood for a few moments, his droppings may be found, or he may have helped himself to some branch in passing.
This leads us to consider tracking by browsing, which the hunter must not neglect while looking for spoor on the ground.
Along a path just described in thick tangled country the spoor of elephant may cross that of rhino or vice versa, and the hunter keen on getting the one and not wishing the other might be led off on the wrong spoor.
In this case a branch torn from a thorn tree or a bit of chewed thorn dropped on the ground would show that he was in the wake of a rhino, while along strip of bark torn from the top of a tree would denote the elephant. The elephant is in the habit of gathering young shoots springing out of the ground with his trunk as he walks along, and, after eating the leaves off, throwing neat little bunches of stalks right and left. The destructive way eland pull whole branches from trees and strip off the bark is very noticeable. The trees and plants every animal feeds on should be learnt, and the manner in which they pluck them. In dealing with this subject, knowing little about botany, we have been obliged to use native names in describing each animal's food.
Although more tracking is done by spooring, the browsing often helps us when we are stuck, and should be carefully observed and studied, in that it affords a much surer indication of the time since the game passed. Wherever an animal feeds on leaves he is sure to drop a few on the ground, and the extent that these have dried will give the required information, as will also the moisture on the branch it was bitten from. The dryness or otherwise of the leaf naturally depends largely on the heat of the day, whether it is lying in the sun or not, and the nature of the tree it has come from, so it would be hard to indicate any general rules for the same, but with the necessary practice the approximate time is soon learned. It is obviously a matter of the highest importance, on finding a track, to be able to determine its age, and whether it is fresh enough to be well worth following. With the grass feeder, the grass he has been browsing from should be picked and examined closely. With the kudu the ends of shoots growing under trees should be looked at whenever the spoor passes near them.
On finding a spoor the first thing to do is to determine its age. This can be roughly seen from the spoor itself, with regard to how keen cut the edges are, and by examining the earth closely.
If it is thought to be fresh it should be followed up, and it will not be long before the animal is found to have broken some stalk or trampled down some grass. The sap at the break, or the bruise on the grass, will furnish the more accurate knowledge required. When a buck has rubbed its horns against a tree, as kudu and sable often do, the bark will be found rubbed and bruised.
The most certain means of any in judging the age of spoor is the condition of the droppings, if they can be found.
Very little practice will enable the hunter to tell whether they have been deposited within the last five minutes or within the last hour ; in a word, whether he is close on the animal, or how much chance there is of getting up to him.
There is more to be learnt from droppings than from any other department in spooring, and we have deemed it of sufficient importance to collect and endeavour to portray those of most animals.
It is as useful to be able to recognise those of different animals as to be able to differentiate their tracks.
Whenever this form of spoor is met with, the hunter will mechanically put his foot on it to ascertain whether it is soft and fresh, and whether it is steamy inside.
The foods of various animals are denoted in this way ; we have seen promising young pumpkins sprouting from an elephant's ordure, showing that he has eaten ripe fruit from a native garden, the seeds passing unhurt through the animal and, deposited in such favourable surroundings, quickly taking root.
We have noticed the bristly hair of the klipspringer in the dung of leopards, bones of fish in otters', fur of mice in that of wild cats and leopards, showing that the latter is not above mousing like any other cat, when he has nothing better to do.
The jackal also will fill his empty stomach with berries, and the duiker will occasionally eat seeds.
The small buck, duiker and oribi, return to the same neighbourhood to make their droppings, and little heaps of different ages can be seen close together, while the little Sharpes' steinbok makes only one big pile, returning to the same spot while remaining in that locality.
With buffalo, maggots are seen in the dung on the second day, which is always a certain sign of whether the spoor is fresh or not. If found at a reasonable hour on the first day, they are generally worth following, as they walk slowly and lie down much, except when on trek changing their country. When they are trekking from their watering-place to distant grazing grounds, or moving off to a new country, it can be seen by the spoor, as they and also zebra move on a narrow front, and elephant usually go in file, seldom diverging, while all these animals open out when going slowly ; and when grazing each animal takes its own line.
Dung naturally differs according to the food, but generally retains the same form; the waterbuck, however, varies materially. When feeding on moist, green grass, it is more like that of cattle, while at other times it somewhat resembles that of eland.
To return to the tracks of animals, it can be taken as a general rule that those of the hind foot of such animals as hyaena, jackal, and cats are narrower than those of the fore foot, but often longer; while with buck and elephant the hind track is usually smaller than the fore, but more oblong in shape.
Sometimes, as in the case of eland, this is very marked, and the spoor of the hind foot might pass as that of a different animal.
It must be remembered that in the usual walk of a buck, jackal, &c, the spoor of the hindfoot is generally in front of that of the fore, while at a jog it is on the top or slightly behind.
In the walk of a cat or genet, that of the hind is usually exactly over the fore, and it is for this reason that the hind foot has been shown in the illustrations, as it is the one more generally seen.
The lengths of stride of the different animals at their different paces have also to be learnt.
Knowing this enables spoor to be seen and followed much quicker, as one knows how far to look in front for the next step.
Some native hunters pace in the stride of the animal when following up its tracks, placing their feet immediately behind each spoor, and observing every step of the animal. When the spoor is lost, only the ground close in front of the foot has to be searched for it.
The hoofs of galloping buck always spread out, while at a walk the two halves often touch; this is notably the case with sable.
The two halves of the foot sometimes only spread in front, while behind it looks in the spoor as if they were joined. (See spoor of eland or bushbuck in Part II., both of which may at times assume the shape of that given for buffalo and kudu respectively, but smaller.)
With lion, leopard, hyaena, jackal, and cats it will be noticed that the pad of the inside claw is the shortest and thickest, and that of the outside claw has a concave curve opposite it in the large rear pad.
The rear pad is bigger and extends more on the outside than the inside. (For illustration see spoor of F. serval in Part II.)
With baboon, the mark of the ball of the counterpoised digit can be seen.
We now come to the most difficult part of the recognition of tracks, and that is, to tell apart two animals of the same size and species. If the reader can do this easily he will be beyond the need of taking any hints that these elementary pages can offer him. We will mention in passing, however, that this is almost wholly done by observing the splittings of the hoof, or in elephant and rhino from the protuberances formed by the peeling of the hard horny skin of the pads.
A zebra's hoof is often excessively split and broken, the sketch of which may show what is meant.
In following game, each spoor will look somewhat different according to the ground and the way in which pressure has been brought to bear on it, but soon an approximate idea is gained of the irregularities and their relative positions noted.
With regard to elephant's and rhino's feet, we might mention before closing that, owing to the gentle way they put them down, often the impress of these protuberances is easier to see than that of the whole foot.
At other times the mark of a blade of grass, pressed into the earth and sprung up again when the animal released it, catches the eye before the whole spoor does.
With reference to the tracks of cats and other small animals which can hardly be referred to as big game, we have included these as the beginner who is at all observant is sure to notice them, especially on the paths, and may wish to know to what they belong.
If he takes an interest in all animal life which surrounds him, he can learn by this means much of the habits of many nocturnal animals, animals he would seldom, if ever, see, and of whose very existence he would be unaware if it were not for their tracks.


F. C. Selous DSO
May 5, 2011
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How To Find Game
by Captain Chauncey Hugh Stigand (1877 - 1919)

An early start from camp is advisable, and if the grazing grounds are far it may be necessary to start before dawn. For sable, roan, eland, hartebeest, waterbuck, warthog, &c, the dambos should be skirted before the game has left for the thick bush.
A dambo is an open stretch of ground with bush on either side. They take the drainage of the forest land, and during the rains are practically marshes, while during the dry weather they are, till fired, covered with tall, rank, thick grass.
Where the old grass has been burnt and the fresh green grass is springing up is a favourite place for game, and it comes here also to lick the salt from the burnt ashes.
On cloudy, cool mornings, game will probably remain longer than on a bright day.
If no decent head is seen one should try to get on the spoor of an animal that has been feeding there during the night or early morning.
If found fairly early it ought to be overtaken when lying up at midday.
Should no animals or spoor have been seen when the sun has got well up, it will be best to try the bush.
For kudu, bushbuck, impala, &c, the denser places should be searched, as they seldom leave thick country.
When there is a river or water in the vicinity of camp, their neighbourhood should be observed for spoor of animals that have drunk during the night.
Later in the day it would be of little use, as game would probably be some distance off.
Many animals travel great distances to drink, notably elephant, rhino, lion, and zebra, while others are seldom found far from water, for example, waterbuck, reedbuck, impala, puku, lechwe, and situtunga. The last two practically live most of the day in water or marsh.
When camping in a native village it is always worth while having a look at the cultivated patches on the way out to shoot, as elephant, hippo, eland, and roan often come to feed on maize during the night, sometimes right up to the huts, and the elephants even pull down the basketwork stores to help themselves to the harvested maize cobs; while kudu invade the patches of castor-oil plants.
The spoor of many nocturnal animals, such as lion, leopard, hyaena, jackal, porcupine, and the lesser cats are seen on the native pathways early in the morning before they have been trodden on.
The favourite ground of kudu are wooded slopes, as they, with sable, zebra, bushbuck, and duiker are often to be found in very rough and broken country, and at high altitudes.
We have shot sable considerably over 6,ooo feet above sea level.
On most of the rocky summits are to be found klipspringer, who seem to be able to live without water.
These are very rarely to be seen in the low country, and perhaps then only on their way from one range to another.
Elephant, rhino, and buffalo inhabit, as a rule, much wilder country, and following them involves the hardest work.
Elephant drink nightly, and their spoor can be picked up going to and coming from water.
It is necessary to be on their spoor very early, owing to the immense distances
they travel. They generally stand in the shade at midday. Rhino live in thorn
tree country, and like thick grass, through which they make well trodden and winding runs.
Buffalo are seldom far from water, or go any distance during the day unless travelling from one place to another, as they drink in the daytime as well as at night.
Lion and leopard, being nocturnal, are very seldom seen, and, if they are, they are generally come on by chance; but on a cool morning they may remain near their kill till after the sun has risen.
When put up, they bound away grunting, leaving an easy spoor to follow for the first few hundred yards, but soon settle down to walk " carefully," as the natives say, leaving hardly a trace to be seen.
There is no systematic way in which to hunt lion in Central Africa, as in desert countries like Somaliland.
They may be come on by accident or got by sitting up at night. If fresh khubber of a kill can be obtained, and there is a good moon, the chances might be favourable, but " tying up " is very disheartening work and generally results in a blank night. A lion is very suspicious, but when he has killed or is very hungry seems to lose all his natural caution.
He generally eats little of his kill the first night, and returns for a gorge the next; for this reason there is a better chance of obtaining a shot by this method.
After leaving his kill he will always go to water before lying up.
When he gets into a goat kraal he seems to delight in killing as many animals as possible and more than he can eat.
They do not take to man-eating in the same way as the tiger does in India, but pass from game to man as the opportunity occurs.
A great number of human beings are annually killed by them in Central Africa, more especially during the rains, when the grass is long, and presumably they meet with the same difficulty in stalking game as does the hunter.
If he should drag his kill, as he often does with a man, there is little difficulty in following him.
Hippo come on shore during the night to feed, and often wander some distance from the water, returning before daylight. They generally go in small herds. They are not only found in the large lakes and rivers, but also in smaller streams if the pools are deep. When found in these they are very fond of papyrus swamps, in the midst of which they are difficult to find; entering and leaving these they make deep muddy runs.
In the dry weather, when the swamps are shallow, it is sometimes possible to reach the pools where they are lying by wading through the mud.
The hyaena is seldom seen in the daytime, though occasionally he may be noticed making for thick cover after a late night out.
Jackals are often seen about dusk, when they begin to move. The claws of both these animals may be seen in the spoor, whereas those of lion and leopard are shot out only when they are preparing to spring, in which case the ground is seen to be torn up.
We mentioned before that one should listen carefully when after game for the sounds which betray their presence. Galloping game can be heard at a great distance, and if a herd of zebras are disturbed their thundering hoofs will give the alarm to any game near.
Roan, sable, hartebeest, and animals in large herds, as a rule, do not go far before stopping.
If having seen or winded you they are heard galloping off, they would be worth while following up.
Many buck bark when they see you, e.g., kudu and impala, while reedbuck and oribi give a shrill whistle, roan snort, and hartebeest make a guttural sound.
Lion, leopard, and pig grunt when they are put up; wounded elephant, besides trumpeting, make a very shrill scream ; but what is of more use to the hunter are the sounds not caused by their having seen you, and which enable you to locate them.
Such sounds are the stomachic rumblings of elephant and the flapping of their ears, the bellowing of buffalo, the tapping of roan, sable, and kudu's horns against trees, the blowing of hippo. The latter is heard upwards of a mile, and from that distance sounds like a deep-drawn sigh close at hand.
Just as a woman's voice differs from that of a man, so does that of a female animal from a male's.
The bark of the male baboon is gruffer, the roar of the lion is more powerful, and, when roaring at night, it can be distinguished if there are a couple, or only a lion by himself.
Many animals emit a strong smell, which can be recognised after a little practice.
When following up an elephant through thick grass, his smell is noticed at places where he has stood, but is especially useful when following a wounded animal.
In the winding grass runs he walks so noiselessly that he might only be a few yards ahead of you round a corner without your being aware of it if it were not for the smell.
Rhino also have a strong smell, differing a little from elephant.
Waterbuck have a musky smell quite peculiar to themselves. Of other animals, buffalo and warthog have distinctive smells.
We have touched on spooring by tracks, browsing, sound, and smell, and also on the most likely places in which to find different game, and will now endeavour to show the best ways of spotting them.
Needless to say, the most important thing is to prevent them getting your wind, so in arranging the day's shoot, work out your direction so that in traversing the places in which you most expect to see game you will have the wind right.
Naturally, you will not adhere rigidly to this direction in places where the spoor is difficult to see, but, while keeping your general bearing, will zig-zag so as to pass over likely ground, and parts where spoor is easy to be seen.
Any changes of wind should be noticed and conformed to.
On a cloudy day in thick country it is difficult to keep one's bearings.
For this reason the direction of prevailing winds should always be noticed, as the grass bent down by them is a sure index.
Also the ways streams flow should be noted from maps, as a guide to where you are.
It should always be known when the last rain fell, as a guide to the age of spoor.
It will well repay trouble to climb every anthill on your way, in order to have a look round for game.
In very thick country, especially when after elephant, it will often be necessary to climb trees for this purpose.
The sportsman should invariably carry his rifle himself, or he will miss many opportunities, and he will only have himself to thank if he loses valuable game by not doing so, as it is a native peculiarity never to be at hand when wanted.
He should not walk out on to a dambo at once, but inspect it before reaching it through the trees from a distance, and at any time that a new vista is opened up should approach cautiously and very slowly.
When he has satisfied himself that there is no game near him, he should keep up the edge of the dambo in the shade of the trees, and frequently inspect all likely places and objects, which might be game, through his glasses.
He should always go slowly, as in so doing there is less chance of being seen or heard.
If men are taken out to carry in any game shot, they should be made to walk at least half a mile in the rear in open country, and not come up close, as they always try to do.
If they see anything they should pass up word by whistling or signal.
One should at all times walk noiselessly, even when one thinks that game is not close, and avoid treading on sticks and dead leaves.
The habit of pointing which natives are fond of indulging in should be discouraged, as any quick movement attracts the attention of game.
Your native hunter will often see things first, and should be taught to indicate the direction with his hand below the waist and close to the side.
The two great maxims to observe in looking for game are, to go quietly and to keep the wind right.
The first is by no means easy, as in the dry season the ground will be covered with dry grass, reeds, brittle sticks, and leaves, not to mention thorn bushes, overhanging boughs, holes in the ground, stones, and fallen timber; and in the wet season the green grass will make a swishing sound. Therefore, to go quietly one must go slowly.
Care should be taken to pitch camp at least a quarter of a mile from any water where game may be expected to drink during the night, so that it should not be disturbed by the noise and smell of the camp.
This especially applies to the larger game, such as elephant, rhino, and buffalo.
Of course, this is not so important on the banks of a big river, where the game may drink anywhere, and where two trackers may be sent to look for spoor up and down stream, on both banks, at early dawn.
At a small pool which game frequent, by neglecting such precautions, it may be driven off, thereby necessitating it to drink elsewhere, and perhaps the next pool may be a day's march away.


Henry Arthur Readford
May 23, 2011
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very interesting article. and it holds relevent to Australia although you obviously need to change the prey your tracking and recognise our animals habits.
The principles finding spoors(signs) are the same.
Some very good hints on setting camp in regards to tracking and time frames on actually carrying out the tracking


F. C. Selous DSO
May 5, 2011
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Yes it does...

Tracking is a universal skill set, sure the piece talks about African game, but is still relevent to our conditions.

We in Australia share the same type of terrain and climate with our Southern African cousins, so to me it makes sense to look there also to find information on tracking in our country.

I will admit I have a slight bias too, since my first teacher was a Rhodesian/South African tracker, soldier and game ranger.