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Diamonds and Spoor: Giving you Clarity

Diamonds on the Soles of their Spoor…

Limousine languid and ticking softy in the still air, the ephemeral iridescence of spider hunting wasps circle a nearby winter cassia. Its late afternoon and we are already hot, dusty and tired, but that’s all quickly forgotten when there’s sign of lion around. We know they’ve passed through at some point and are certainly laid up in a bush to avoid the heat – the only question is where?! At last we’ve found our most useful tool of detection: lion spoor in the dust of the road, which requires a systematic examination of size, shape and sharpness of indentation.

Following tracks requires patience and experience – an in-depth knowledge of a particular pride and their habits to anticipate any potential movement. Much like looking at diamonds, but infinitely more exciting, and growing more and more scarce as habitat dwindles and illegal hunting continues, spoor can be categorised similarly to follow the elusive treasure of seeing game, and cats in particular, in the wild.

Where diamonds are ranked by the four ‘C’s: Colour, Cut, Clarity and Carat, I have here stated for the amateur the six ‘S’s of spoor (with several secondary sections…):

Species: indicated by size and shape of the track, and from there, the age and sex of the individual. Carnivore prints can occasionally be confusing, but the most obvious difference is the number of lobes (or indentations) at the back of the foot pad: one indentation, two lobes, evidences wild dog and hyena but also genet and mongoose; two indentations or three lobes for the cats, caracal, civet and jackal. Most of these require extensive experience and comparison in order to differentiate: for instance leopard tracks are almost completely circular in shape, whereas Lion spoor appears more oval – and particularly so in females; in addition to this, the toes of lion track lie further from the proximal pad than leopard. In most mammals, the impression front foot is normally bigger than the aft as their forequarters provide the primary locomotive force, as well as the power to take down prey in carnivores.

Solitary: are there other tracks nearby? The size and shape of secondary tracks will give an indication as to whether the individual is male or female, traveling with young, and may then also suggest the speed at which they are travelling, calling to mind the African proverb: if you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together.

Sharpness or scuff: this denotes the time the track was laid, or how fresh it is; the sharper the outline (or definition), the more recent the spoor. Seeing the etching of the fine hair surrounding the proximal or toe pads, or ridges within the pad mark from cracks on the sole of a hyena paw, means that it hasn’t been laid long enough to be eroded by time or wind. This is perhaps the part which requires the most experience and works in conjunction with Season and Scrawl (work with me here – there are only so many relevant words beginning with S). Season – and the weather that goes with it, gives an idea of wind and humidity conditions likely to smudge fresh tracks. The early morning breeze of July August may well distort even the most recent of spoor.

Scrawl I’m using alliteratively to refer to the sign of other animals crossing the track – the natural circadian rhythm of these other animals will indicate when the spoor in question was laid. If searching early in the morning, deductive reasoning proves that seeing evidence of nocturnal animals (such as ant lion, nightjar, owl, millipede or porcupine) crossing the track means the spoor is older – perhaps from dusk the previous day. If, however, lion or leopard track is laid on top of the nocturnal or diurnal animal spoor, you can infer a more recent passage through the bush. Similarly, seeing tracks in the tire tread of a main, or well used, road shows the animal has passed through more recently than the last vehicle to drive it.

Soil and Situation – I’ll admit that I might have gone too far with the S theme here, but it is important to note that different soils hold spoor with varying longevity: sand for instance slips swiftly into the track, smoothing detail. Fine dust is quickly blurred by wind, but clay based soil or slick mud will hold the print for much longer – you only have to look at the dried-out craters of cotton in winter to see evidence of hippo and elephant wallowing in the wet season several months ago. It should also be mentioned that on hard ground the protractile claws of the big cats aren’t usually seen, but in mud or sand the flexing of the ligaments force the claws from their sheath involuntarily.

Situation: where is the spoor and in which direction is the animal headed? Towards the river and possible prey? Or to the deep shade of undergrowth in which to rest? Interpreting this is dependent on local and habitual knowledge – a given animal’s usual routine, where the best grazing is, what browsing is in season, the most convenient place to drink etc. and subsequently, the likelihood of prey.

This is of course a slippery business, and more art than science depending on many variable factors, and indeed, spotting the track in the first place! There no guarantee that you will find the ultimate prize, but that’s exactly the point. Unlike diamonds – hard, polished and cold – following spoor that may lead to a pride of lion and their cubs, or may well peter out into impenetrable bush, is a raw, visceral experience and fuelled with adrenaline. The excitement lies in the possibility, and the potential reward of watching the big cats (which are now suffering extreme population decline) snooze or play, or prepare for the evening hunt.

Instead of a frosted necklace or glittering ring, there’s the gentle clink of ice in a gin and tonic around the flickering fire at night, the memories made and the sharing of stories searching for spoor and sightings – a prize, to me, worth more than bling.

Written by Tara Vivian-Neal

Image by John Kalidza (Guide)