The CyberTracker Universal Tracker Certification covers the fundamental principles of tracking as well as the finer details and sophisticated aspects of tracking. This is done on an individual basis, depending on the level of each candidate. The evaluation is in the form of a practical field test. Rather than pointing out details, each individual is first asked to give his or her own interpretation. Mistakes are corrected and explained continuously throughout the duration of the evaluation. This process identifies the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate in order to develop the potential of each individual in accordance to his or her level of skill.
The apprentice tracker is given a percentage obtained for the evaluation. The progress a tracker makes will depend to a large extent on his or her incentive to practice on an ongoing basis. Someone who is not able to develop his or her own skills will never become an expert tracker. The evaluation is therefore intended to teach trackers how to develop their own skills. The CyberTracker Tracker Certification system has also proved to be a very efficient training tool (Wharton, 2006).
Wildlife research often relies upon skilled observers to collect accurate field data (Wilson and Delahay, 2001). However, when the skill level of the observers is unknown, the accuracy of collected data is questionable (Anderson, 2001). Observer reliability is an important issue to address in wildlife research, yet it has often been overlooked or assumed to be high (Anderson, 2003). Measuring observer field skills enables managers to select the most qualified observers, thereby increasing confidence in collecting data (Evans, et al, 2009).
Survey methods involving identification of animal tracks are especially susceptible to observer errors (Wilson and Delahay, 2001). Although tracks and signs (including scat, hair, burrows and other indicators) can be the most efficient way to detect elusive animals (Beier and Cunningham, 1996), several factors (such as substrate quality, moisture level, age of track, animal movement) can cause tracks to be highly variable and difficult to identify. In surveys using tracks and sign, confidence in observer skills is of fundamental importance to the reliability of collecting data.
The standardized CyberTracker Universal Tracker Certification procedure to asses the accuracy of observer reliability in counts of river otter tracks conducted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It was found that experienced observers misidentified 37% of otter tracks. In addition, 26% of tracks from species determined to be “otter-like” were misidentified as otter tracks (Evans et al, 2009). The educational utility of the CyberTracker Tracker Certification system was also demonstrated, showing substantial improvement in the scores of participants who attended the first evaluation (with an average score of 61%) and a second evaluation three months later (with an average score of 79%). This study demonstrated the necessity to reduce observer error in indirect sign surveys by adequately training and evaluating all field observers (Evans et al, 2009).
Many wildlife studies would benefit greatly from adopting standardized methods of evaluating skills of field biologists and data collectors. Methods such as the track and sign evaluation used in the study could be applied to a variety of research fields, both for testing validity of preexisting data and for quantitatively evaluating skills of field observers (Evans et al, 2009).
From its origins in the Kalahari, CyberTracker has now found its way into conservation projects worldwide. Most users simply use the CyberTracker software to record data. But the art of tracking also represents the most sophisticated and refined form of human observation. A fleeting glimpse of a small bird disappearing into a thick bush is closer to a sign of a bird than a clear sighting. A distant sighting of a whale in rough seas can be just as difficult to identify as an indistinct track. A dried out twig, with no flowers or green leaves, can make identification of a plant as difficult as identifying the faintest sign in the sand.
Whether looking at birds, butterflies, plants, whales, tracks or signs, human observations can be infinitely complex. The master trackers of the Kalahari can inspire the development of increasingly refined observation skills.
CyberTracker, Professional Tracker, Senior Tracker and Master Tracker are registered Trade Marks of CyberTracker Conservation NPC and may not be used without permission.
CyberTracker Evaluation Standards Committee
Louis Liebenberg, the late Wilson Masia, Juan Pinto, Adriaan Louw and Mark Elbroch