Jul 08

Poops and Prints

by in Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania

One of the coolest parts of safari is learning how to track animals.  Our first few safaris we just sat back and watched the guide search, sometimes for hours.  After a while though, we realized we were missing a lot of action and we started asking tons of questions.  For those who like puzzles, tracking is one of the most challenging and interesting parts of safari.  It all comes down to this:  how do you find a rare animal in miles of open wilderness? 


One of the best ways to learn more about tracking is to walk on the ground with the guides.  We got to do this with Allen in the Okavango Delta and several times with Mark at Sarara.  Both had grown up in the exact area where they were now guiding and shared a treasury of knowledge.


The first step is context – knowing the terrain and the habits of the animals.  Their location can change by time of day.  For example:  Lions and leopards are nocturnal, but cheetah are day hunters.  In the daytime, lions nap under a tree or in the grasses so go to an open area.  Cheetah like wide open plains with tall grasses where they can hide, and they often sit at the treeline scoping out the action.  So drive along the treeline.  Leopards prefer lightly wooded areas along ravines where there are tall dense trees available for hiding and pouncing.  So you need a ravine.  And while they hunt at night, they can sometimes be seen in dusk walking in the open, when they go for a drink of water before the hunt.  Other species have their various habits as well.

Once you have gotten to the right terrain at the right time of day, it is tempting to just drive around, but you can improve the odds by watching the ground for tracks. 

Elephants leave massive prints; the front foot is round and the back oval, so you can tell its direction by which overlays which, or by finding the indent of the toe. 


Hyenas have prints the same size as the big cats, but dogs like hyenas and jackals only have 2 lobes at the rear of the paw and they always have clawmarks.  Big cats have 3 lobes at the rear of the paw; the cheetahs claws do not retract so they are the only cat with clawmarks.  Above, two cats and one hyena print… can you tell?  The lion is in middle, leopard on the right and hyena on the left.


Antelope have two toes coming to a point; giraffes have a bigger print two toes semi-rounded. 


Baboons have a tiny humanesque footprint and an impression that looks like the knuckles of a hand.  Porcupines have tiny pawprints overlaid by straight lines where their quills drag.

One helpful factor – the dirt roads frequented by safari jeeps are covered by soft sand and are popular jogging paths for the animals.  If the track is recent, you can tell when a creature has crossed the road and where they left.  The recency of the print can be determined by its depth (the wind levels all) and by whether other prints lie on top.

Now the gross part – many times the clue you see is not the print, which is after all only a faint monochrome impression in the dirt.  Rather, the clue is a pile of scat or dung, or as many professional safari guides choose to call it, poo.  These two are distinctive.  The elephant poo is the standout of the bunch, each poo a good 3 inches across and stacked in large piles.  (While the elephant eats tons of vegetable matter, it only digests a fraction of the food content and thus its poo is a food source for other species.  Some plants, such as acacia, produce seed in hard pods that would not even sprout unless the casing is partially digested and weakened by the elephant, thus ensuring the seed starts life surrounded by a healthy portion of fresh manure.  Warthogs nose through the elephant poo looking for seeds).

Elephants only have one stomach and so the vegetable fibers are quite visible in the poo.  By comparison antelope are ruminants, meaning they have 4 stomachs and chew their cud.  Their poo is therefore a solid consistent mass and if you break it apart, which you can do safely as they do not harbor the kind of dangerous bacteria that a meat-eater can harbor in its poo, you will see very fine chopped pieces of vegetable.  The antelopes leave a pellet-like poo.  They vary in size along with the size of the antelope. 


Impala leave bits of pellet strewn everywhere, but they have a special trick.  If they want to mark their territory, they can hold the pellets in and squish a bunch of them into a mass, which then deposit stacked up like stones in a cairn. 

The dik dik is the smallest antelope and has even smaller pellets.  The dik dik lays its poo in a midden – which means they also poop on the same spot of ground, thus also marking their territory.  Fascinatingly, just after leaving a fresh pile of pellets, the dik dik scratches a line through it showing the direction it will go next.  If its mate or offspring or other dik dik sees the scratch in the fresh poo, it can follow.  If a dik dik sees that the poo is old, then it knows the first dik dik never returned alive!  In that case, the dik dik runs in another direction.  In this manner the species co-operates to avoid unsafe regions.  (The defect to this strategy is that a predator who sees a midden need only wait for the dik dik to return.  To account for this, the dik dik are extremely careful when approaching the midden and have to wait a long time to check before they can finally use the bathroom.  This may explain why they are so twitchy when you see them). 

Herbivore poo is brown and full of fibers and generally fades into dust.  It lasts longer in the desert though, because the animals must retain every drop of water.  Even for the same species, the pooh is smaller and harder – even rocklike in the case of the giraffe. 


Poo of carnivores is black because it contains blood and older carnivore poo gets a fuzzy mold.   You can see the hair of an impala kill in the picture of leopard poo above.  And yet one more color – the hyena poo can be bright white!  That is because hyenas have powerful jaws and can eat bones – and are one of the few animals that can digest those bones and poop them out normally.  This plays a role in the ecosystem for animals who cannot otherwise find calcium sources.  For example, in the Okavango Delta tortoises get the calcium for their shells by eating the hyena poop.

A corollary to dung would be other strong scents – an excited giraffe leaves a wide-area musk that is difficult to ignore!

Now that you have learned about poops and prints, go back and look at the picture at the very top.  Can you figure out what they are?  We saw this mix of prints at the Serengeti near the airport and Cornelius helped us identify them.  The answers are at the bottom of the post.

OK, you are in the right territory in the right time and you confirm that an animal is within a few minutes driving distance, because you can see its recent print or poo.  A sighting is imminent, but not definite. 

You have used your brain, tracking eyes and nose. Now it is time to use your ears.  The deep heavy breathing of a lion – huuu huuu hua hua hua – is distinctive and is one way they mark territory.  It can be heard up to 5km away.  Hyena laughs and howls slide up and down the scale eerily like a trombone.  If you hear a lion roar and then hyena howls then something interesting is up.  A leopard cough – like the rasp of a saw –  is one sound you do NOT want to hear – it means they are right next to you! 

There are many prey creatures out there who sound an alarm when they notice a predator.  Baboons yell, zebras bark (really!), impalas cough.  Even bird bystanders can help.  Several species are known for squawking loudly to alert nearby animal life when they see a predator.  We watched our guides in Sarara use bird cries to find a leopard stalking through dense brush in the dark of night, by listening carefully.

Now you are close.  You still have to find the creature, usually camouflaged and hiding somewhere in dense bush or tall grass!  There is no alternative finally to patience and careful observation.  Sometimes only a tail or paw is visible.  Sometimes the animal pokes a head up out of the grass. 

Your patience will be greatly extended though if you can find likely prey in the vicinity who are also looking nervously around.  A group of antelope are nervous if they have stopped eating and waving their tails against the flies, and are instead huddled together staring at the nearby brush.  Oryx will magically stare right at a predator, which is like a spotlight for safaris. 

If you are in the right place, at the right time, with corroborating prints or poo, and you can interpret the animal alarms in the ambient sounds and see nervous prey, it is time to turn off the jeep.  Wait and see.

P.S.  Answer for the fresh tracks near Serengetti airport:  Mirabou stork, jackal, hippo; scat of Impala; tire treads


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