Following the Track of the Cat | Science | Smithsonian
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Following the Track of the Cat

The Bushmen of Namibia are so good at reading the language of footprints they can tell what a leopard did the day before they started pursuing it

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Tracking is deeply ingrained in the San Bushmen of Namibia on the southwestern edge of Africa. "When a toddler becomes bored, his elders set him to following the trail of an ant." When he grows up, he may put the skills he has acquired at the service of a wildlife biologist like Flip Stander, who works for Namibia's Ministry of Environment and Tourism. To conduct his population studies in the field, Stander depends on two resourceful San, Tkui and Txoma, to help him find and capture leopards. "The most difficult thing about tracking is individual identification," Stander says. "There's nothing else that requires so much skill and intelligence."

"By stealth and wit, leopards have managed to thrive in modern Africa." But although these phantomlike creatures are nearly everywhere, they're seldom seen, leaving only their footprints in the sand to be interpreted by masters like Tkui and Txoma. Indentations that are inscrutable to outsiders tell the San everything they need to know. "One night, an African wildcat stole some meat Tkui and Txoma had stored in a tree. Next morning, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, the two trackers followed the trail to the cat's lair—and took the meat back."

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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