Following the spoor: What to look for

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You hear the shot of the rifle and feel the recoil, but the animal runs. What should you do now? To learn about tracking, Gerhard Uys spoke to Willem van der Merwe, a professional hunter at Chacma Safaris, and a tracker from HPG security group, who wanted to remain anonymous.

Following the spoor: What to look for
A fairly fresh buffalo track. The late afternoon sun can help you spot a track more easily.
Photo: Gerhard Uys

Tracking is the art of following a spoor, which may include tracks, scents, blood spatter, scat and broken foliage. Patience, practice and a good understanding of your quarry’s behaviour are needed according to our experts, an experienced tracker with HPG security group, who often tracks rhino poachers, and professional hunter, Willem van der Merwe.

Do different species react differently when wounded?

Willem van der Merwe: Absolutely! When a buffalo realises it is being pursued and is wounded, it will start circling downwind while looking for a wooded area to lie down. In this way, it smells a hunter before the hunter finds it.

It usually waits for the hunters to have nearly passed before charging them. I would recommend at least two people follow a buffalo spoor: one should search the ground for blood, and another should keep an eye on the vegetation in case of a charge. One should also walk around dense grass to see if there’s a blood spoor before entering it.

Bushbuck will retreat into bushes to hide; this allows them to see danger approaching. They can cause a lot of damage if they attack. I have seen how waterbuck hide in water after being wounded, with only their noses sticking out.

Most animals will get away from where they were shot as fast as possible. The last thing a hunter needs is an animal full of adrenaline; it makes meat tough and is a recipe for a long tracking excursion. I usually wait a couple of minutes after an animal is shot without allowing the animal to see me.

I handle any wounded animal with respect. The first time I was attacked by a wounded animal was on a warthog hunt. After that, I always approach with caution, my rifle at the ready.

HPG tracker: Each species is unique and reacts differently when wounded, and will also react differently when on different terrains such as mountains, wetlands or plains.

A buck in the open will always run towards a densely vegetated area to reach safety. It will also react differently depending on where [on its body] it was shot. A ‘death run’ will be fast and straight until the buck falls or lies down. But with a flesh wound, a buck will gradually walk slower and then start circling.

Also remember that all animals will attack if they are trapped, and being shot will aggravate this. Some species, such as buffalo, elephant, leopard, bush pig and bushbuck, will attack without good reason. But plains game will mostly run away if given the chance.

What should you do if you realise that you did not kill the animal?

WvdM: Try and remember what the animal’s reaction was when it was shot as this will indicate where it was shot. With a heart/lung shot, the animal may just collapse. Be aware of such a shot and reload immediately.

Sometimes the shot was high and the apparently dead animal jumps up after a few seconds and runs away. This is particularly common with blue wildebeest and gemsbok.

A shot that hit the stomach makes a clear ‘duff’ sound, and the buck usually kicks its hind legs up as a first reaction when running away. Look for intestinal contents and bloody water.

With a well-placed shot just above the heart, the animal will blindly run forward until its oxygen depletes and it falls down.

If the animal doesn’t drop immediately with a headshot, the chances are that its jaw has been shot off. Such a buck will run far away without a trace of blood, and eventually die of starvation as it is unable to eat.

Once you have determined where you may have shot the animal, mark the spot where you stood and move slowly towards where the buck stood when you shot it, and also mark that spot. Then start looking for blood.

HPGt: Remember how the animal reacted, and determine precisely where it stood when shot with the help of landmarks such as trees and rocks. This will make it easier to locate the area where it was shot and determine the flight path. It’s important to start tracking from where it stood when shot, as there will be many signs like hair, bone, meat, blood or intestinal contents that indicate the flight path.

How do you determine whether the spoor is fresh?

WvdM: A fresh spoor will ‘shine’ in the morning sun. Look for dew drops on the side of a spoor to determine whether animals walked there at night or early in the morning. If they walked at night there will be dew, but if they walked by in the morning, the dew would not have gathered in the spoor. In the mornings, you can also look for broken spider webs, which will also tell you whether an animal walked by recently or during the evening.

HPGt: A couple of variables determine age. Wind ages a spoor quickly. The sides of a spoor are rounded by wind and details disappear. Rain may wash out a spoor, but a spoor is also preserved for longer after rain. Other human or animal traffic that follows the same path will also have an influence on how fresh a spoor looks.

For example, a hoof may temporarily push water out of a spoor but it will seep back in after a while; therefore rather follow a spoor to dry ground before attempting to determine its age. Soft soil will make a spoor appear new, and hard soil will make it appear older. But one needs a practised eye, with an understanding of the variables of the situation to determine the age of a spoor.

How do you determine whether a branch is freshly broken?

WvdM: A freshly broken branch will be wet. As soon as there are wilted leaves, one knows it has been broken for some time. The direction in which the branch was broken also indicates the direction the animal went.

HPGt: The type of plant, climate and time of day will determine how long a branch may have been broken. With dry matter, there will be fine details like pieces of plant material where it broke, but wind will blow this away fairly quickly. With wet plants, there will be traces of sap for longer, but the weather will determine how long it stays wet. Sun and wind dry the sap.

How do you determine whether blood is fresh?

WvdM: In the sun, blood will dry quicker. If you are tracking in the shade and you find blood that is not dry, you know you are close to a wounded animal.

HPGt: Fresh blood is bright red and darkens with time. Blood on moist soil or even rocks appear fresh for longer. Dry ground absorbs the moisture. Blood will first be wet and runny, then become viscous and dry. After approximately 15 minutes, blood will show signs of drying, but the variables on the day will determine exactly how long that takes.

What should you do if you lose a spoor?

WvdM: Try and assess whether there was a specific direction in which the animal was moving, and try determine if there is water in that direction, as animals usually head for water. You can imitate a wounded buck’s behaviour and start walking in circles to see if you can pick up the spoor again. Always remember to keep the direction of the wind in mind so that a buck does not smell you.

Most animals run downwind when wounded. Begin looking for grass, trees or stumps with blood on it. Also look for natural clearings in bush or game paths. I prefer that no more than three people track a wounded animal, otherwise there’s too much noise and you disturb the spoor.

HPGt: The spoor should be marked throughout the tracking process, so that if you lose it, you can backtrack and start afresh. Toilet paper is a good way to mark a spoor. If there are more than two trackers, one person can stay at the last place the spoor was seen, and indicate what direction a buck might have taken.

If you lose the spoor completely, you can draw an imaginary 180˚ line from the last place the spoor was seen, and then search in a half-moon shape 15m from where the spoor was last seen. Repeat the half-moon until the spoor is picked up again. It isn’t often that a buck will backtrack over the 180˚ line, and it will only do this if disturbed or if it wants to attack.

Remember that there are two types of spoor: ground spoor, which are any signs of a spoor on ground level, and air spoor, which are any signs on or disturbance of flora. Ground spoor may be harder to track. Air spoor gives an indication of where to look for ground spoor.

Carefully look for any air spoor and signs of broken plants that indicate the flight direction, and signs of dung or blood. Plant material will be pushed in the direction of flight.

What should you do if there is no blood spoor?

WvdM: Stay on the track; often the shot was placed high on the animal’s body and blood needs time to run down to the ground. Look for blood on trees, grass, branches and leaves that are higher off the ground. Only when an animal enters high grass would I start circling to see if it moved from the grass.

HPGt: It is important to know the features of the physical spoor so that, in case you can’t find a blood spoor, the tracker can follow the spoor by itself. A spoor does not disappear, but the signs become harder to read.

When a buck is wounded or shot there is always signs that can be tracked, like intestinal contents or hair. It is therefore important to find the exact spot where it stood when it was shot and follow the spoor from there. A buck will show that it was shot by dragging a leg, uncoordinated movements, or, if wounded heavily, by moving over bushes.

For more information, phone Willem van der Merwe on 073 882 5938, or email him at [email protected].