Michael's Dispatches

Wolfpack 104 –Jungle Man Art vs. GI Science


IMGL9482-1000Butterflies on suspected elephant dung: many signs are obvious.

10 December 2012

The British learned that employing local trackers can be disastrous.  Indigenous folks can be immensely talented at local tracking because they are tuned intimately to their biowebs.  Problems start from there.

“Jungle Man” might be able to trail a butterfly—especially so if he can sell it—but he cannot read a map.  He does not get lost because he knows his home range and how to navigate there.

IMGL9124-1000Hilltribe jungle boys in Thailand.

Biowebs and tracking can change dramatically from one terrain to another, in the space not measured in miles, but feet.  In Brunei, jungle gave way within just a few steps to desert-like terrain that resembled Afghanistan. When the trees were cut the soil washed away, leaving a Martian landscape similar to parts on the Big Island of Hawaii.

In fact, the Big Island has most of the ecosystems found worldwide, ranging from alpine tundra to forests, jungles, prairies, and desert-like areas, down to tropical beaches and coconuts.

Jungle Man could track around his village, but when loaded onto a helicopter and flown onto a cold, dry and treeless mountain only minutes away, he might fail.  On the Big Island, alpine tundra is a nine-minute Blackhawk flight to tropical beaches.  Similar dramatic changes are common globally.

The British learned that even superb local trackers cannot make up for absent military expertise.  They cannot be transported to work reliably in other conditions.

IMGL9623-1000Hilltribe village in northern Thailand. The villagers keep three elephants.

According to Dean Williams, a retired British Royal Marine and combat tracker instructor, “The key factor is the ability to make logical deductions and assumptions via an understanding of military tactics and SOP's…”  Local trackers typically cannot do this.

Numerous combat trackers read this draft.  Two cautioned that local trackers are at times hired to potent use.  One veteran officer mentioned the Koevoet unit in Namibia.

The book Shadows in the Sand reveals a series of combat tracking stories, as told by a native tracker enlisted in the Koevoet.

The local trackers were not just village boys plucked away from lives of finding wayward cattle.  They received combat training, and then piled tracking atop their new combat skills.

image007-1000Strapping the enemy to the mud guards. I highly recommend the book Shadows in the Sand

The Koevoet had a reputation for hard tracking, hard killing, and hard drinking, often returning to camp with mangled enemies strapped around the vehicles. They stacked the bodies high.  They also were paid for kills, a practice that some Americans might not support, and which was controversial locally.

image009-1000There were complaints about strapping the bodies to vehicles, but the insides of the vehicles were cramped, and nobody wanted gore on the floor. They began covering the bodies.

image011-1000The Koevoet faced threats that we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mines, roadside bombs, RPGs and small arms. Koevoet used armored vehicles and helicopters to track, push, and cut ahead of enemy.

image013-1000Many of those tracked down were expert trackers themselves, and would use anti-tracking techniques which often worked.

If our folks in Afghanistan could track like the Koevoet, the Taliban would be an endangered species.

Judging by descriptions in Shadows in the Sand, our men are far better fighters than the Koevoet.  But the Namibians were good fighters, courageous, and could track.  It matters less that you are a great fighter when the enemy can find you easier than you can find him.  This is part of combat.

Despite Koevoet unit and other successes, it remains inadvisable to hire trackers from villages thinking their skills are universally applicable.

The Rhodesians melded tracking more to our way of combat and were extremely successful.

Is tracking an Art, or a Science?

2012-01-a-xlarge web-1000Hubble Space Telescope image: science, art, or both?

Some people call tracking an art.  Others call it a science.  This is a case where the opinion actually matters.

Many professions have these discussions.  Military Science or Martial Arts, is the art of war.  Last week, I was privy to a conversation that included about a dozen serious military thinkers, when a retired veteran Colonel posed the question, “What is war?”

They arrived with many thoughts.  I remained quiet because I do not know a suitable definition that withstands simple challenges.  Despite all of my time with art and war, I cannot define art, war, or the art of war.

IMGL9651-1000Practically none of our billions of dollars worth of counter-IED gear will work in this environment. Approximately 80% of IEDs found in Afghanistan are found by the human eye. (Image from Northern Thailand.)

The American military does not like art. It likes science.  It likes to reduce matters to algorithms and computer simulations to predict battles.

The Pentagon wants to factor people out, not in, with a clear line of march toward the kriegs-utopia of a predictable war, where we fight gadget vs. gadget, or gadget vs. man, but not man against man.

A reality of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan is that it often remained man vs. man.

suntrackyouIMGL4582-1000Moose track at Norwegian Army tracking training. In Norway, the sun hangs low in summertime, and so every hour is a golden hour. Notice the direction of the shadows. (STY.)

Back down on Earth, the morning sun is often perfect for shadows.  In most cases, the tracker keeps the sign between his eyes and the sun.  He sometimes is looking ahead, or even back over his shoulder to keep a good angle.  The rule is STY: Sun. Track. You.

The angle is crucial.  Sign that is nearly invisible up close might be obvious a hundred meters distant, or the inverse.

You can experiment by making a footprint, and walking a spiral around it from various distances.  At some angles the print can be obvious.  As the Sun-Track-You angle changes, even from the same distance, the sign can disappear.

But if you are on the equator at noon, the sun is straight overhead.   The shadow cast by a pole twenty feet tall might be measured in inches.

A telephone pole at noon on the equator casts almost no shadow.  If you are not on the equator, you will never see a shadowless fencepost on a sunny day.  A person who does not believe this may go insane trying to disprove it.

The closer you are to the equator, the worse the light becomes as it heads toward noon.  There will be little shadow in a footprint, and it will be tough to see unless the sign is large, such as in mud.  This does not make tracking impossible, but can slow it considerably, and the tracker will miss evidence.

Cornelius Nash, Operations Director at the renowned Scott Donelan Tracking School, points out that the tracker should always be aware of the sun’s location, and to maintain STY at all possible times, and not to accept “good enough” simply because you can see the track.

STY is a golden rule for spotting evidence.  Terrain and other realities often defy obedience.  Combat has its own golden rules that might clash.  The veteran must use judgment on which golden rules shine the brightest at the moment.


As a photographer, it has become apparent that sunlight hours best for artistic photography tend to be best for tracking.  All times are possible, but some times are golden.

Wearing my photographer hat, I have noticed that the farther away from the equator, the more golden hours there are per day. Unless of course it is winter and the days are shorter.  Opposite for southern hemisphere.  (As a writer, distance from the equator makes no difference.)

Places that are challenging for artistic photography, such as splotchy light on jungle floor, are more challenging for tracking.  The glaring sun, midday on the equator, is harsh for artistic photography, and tracking.  The summer in Norway brings great sun angles all day unless there is diffusion from the clouds.

Image-a-1000Experiment: Crumple paper and change light-paper-eye angle. This image was made yesterday using afternoon daylight.

Ground sign tends to be naturally camouflaged.  White on white.  Orange on orange.  Black on black.  We need contrast, making shadows a tracker’s friend.

If you are in a city and cannot experiment easily with tracks, just crumple a sheet paper.  Now flatten the sheet with your hands.  Invest 30 seconds and make it as smooth as you can.

Take it outside in the sun, or use a light indoors, and change the angle of the paper to the light.

The flashlight on my desk makes a nice sun-simulator.  By shining the flashlight from a low “morning” angle, the crumples are obvious.  As the flashlight moves in an arc to “noon,” directly over the paper, many creases disappear.

The flashlight then arcs off the other side for “sunset,” making dramatic changes in the shadows.

Image2-a-1000Same paper, same sun. This image was taken about one minute after the first, but the angle is altered.

Nothing is mystical here.  This is physics meeting eyeball.  A first-grader can learn this reality of tracking in the time it takes to peel and eat an orange.

Farther from the equator, time of day matters less.

At noon this December day in Chiang Mai, Thailand (only N18º), I walked outside my office to check the shadows.   Just now the shadows are about as long as the objects are tall.

photo-1000Today at 1300hrs local, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Here, at noon on easy tracking ground, footprints pop out.  Even a passing glance is enough to get on track.  Afghanistan is far more north, making it easier still.  This will vary with season due to inclination

To my mind, I see no real difference between art and science. Yet it is doubtful that art theories will be admissible as courtroom evidence.

Cornelius Nash will call tracking a science.  He insists that anyone with good vision, an open mind, and willingness to learn, can be taught effective tracking for law enforcement or combat.

Cornelius makes the point that natives often take tracking into the realm of art, but they lack the scientific thought processes -- or at least in a language that we understand – to convey what they are seeing and doing.

Some people can learn to ride a bike in one day.  They do not need a professional school.  After a couple of weeks, they can ride on smooth ground with little difficulty.  They are not ready for a mountain bike race, but they are travelling under their own power.  A kid can read a dozen books about bike riding, but unless she is a two-wheeled savant, truly riding involves truly falling, and many hours on the saddle.

Tracking is similar.  Professional teachers accelerate learning. After one week of training by professionals, nearly everyone will say, “I am already tracking.  I can do this.”

As with martial arts, there are many styles of tracking.  Books and courses will use vastly different techniques.  Which is best?  This is a fair question, like asking, “Which is the best type of dog?”  The answer can only be “that depends.”


In closing, local trackers can be helpful.  Yet nothing can replace well-trained law enforcement who must reduce evidence to scientific explanation that will withstand courtroom scrutiny.

Likewise, nobody can replace globally deployable combat trackers, who can survive in wildly different climates and ecosystems, and who can bring tracking into the realm of military science, and art.

Stay tuned for more on Wolfpacks.

For more on combat tracking, see Pencari 

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Sheph7 · 6 years ago
    My father, a WWII veteran and at the time myself going to Vietnam had the definition of war that has always stuck with me… “war is watching your best friends dying”
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Peter · 6 years ago
    your photography is excellent. Stellar.
    War has always seemed to me the willing to fight to the death without any rules. I think WW II was the ultimate of that, maybe the civil war too. I have a Brother in law who was in the Battle of the Bulge. I have tried to get him to talk about it, but he won't. He just changes the subject.

    I once read a poem on War. I don't remember the author, and if anyone else knows it, I would love to see it, but I have tried to re-create it here.


    wasted lives, wasted money
    wasted tools, wasted food,
    wasted animals, wasted children,
    wasted houses, wasted buildings,
    wasted ships, wasted planes,
    wasted cars, wasted trucks,
    wasted words, wasted loves,
    this is war!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Carl · 6 years ago
    War is man hunting man.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tim · 6 years ago
    Not sure if you're aware of it - but you might be interested in the "Hollywood" version of your tracking comments. There is a show called Mantracker that pits a local tracker with a "professional" tracker against 2 hunted human prey in a race to the "base". http://science.discovery.com/tv-shows/mantracker
  • This commment is unpublished.
    T M · 6 years ago
    Just appreciating mother nature is both art an science. Tracking is also both. You have to appreciate what you are seeing in order to concentrate and learn from it.

    This is how a child decides whether or not to become an artist (superficial observation of colors and textures) or a scientist (why does it look like or do that). Both are, in a sense, artists. Science to me is a more in depth observation of the art of nature.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Sully · 6 years ago
    There's a section in the Art of War about the types of spies and their uses. Local trackers are mentioned as useful but dangerous to rely on for similar reasons. Over estimation of ability and other problems.

    Basically thousands of years ago armies had the same problems of today despite our technological advances.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Laird · 6 years ago
    War: Organized aggression applied towards a purpose or desired outcome.
    Which makes many activities we don't normally associate with 'war' to be very warlike indeed.

    There's a reason business executives read The Book of Five Rings and Sun Tzu - and it isn't just curiosity.

    In regards to tracking - This has been a most informative and intersting post. Real 'food for thought' stuff; thank you.

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