Karel Benadi: master of the bush

5 December 2013

Karel Benadie is a master tracker, one of only a handful of people in South Africa accorded this status.

These skills have led to him being featured as a “South African icon” in 21 Icons, a nation-building project that aims to celebrate “extraordinary South Africans who have captured the global imagination with their dignity, humanity, hard work and selfless struggle for a better world”.

The 50-year-old Benadie is one of the few practitioners of an almost-dying art and “without people like him passing on this tradition of showing others how to track, how to understand their natural environment, we will lose a part of us”, photographer Adrian Steirn, the person behind the 21 Icons concept, said in a statement this week.

Benadie is the subject of a short film that will be screened in South Africa on Sunday. A black-and-white portrait of the conservationist will be published as a commemorative poster on the same day in the Sunday Times.

The 50-year-old is “a magician of the bush”, said Steirn. “I see grass, I see rocks, I see sky; he sees a complete wonderland and he can read that location like a book.”

Instilling a love of nature

Benadie was born on a farm in Beaufort West in the arid Karoo region of the Western Cape. As a young child, Benadie helped his father look after sheep, learning to track the jackal and caracal that had escaped their traps.

Benadie says it was this time spent walking in the arid Karoo with his father that instilled in him a love of nature.

Benadie worked for what is today known as South African National Parks (SANParks), starting off as a general worker until his apparent knowledge of animals and the veld soon led him into work as a field ranger, researcher and tracker. He spent 16 years of his 33 years at SANParks tracking the black rhino.

While at SANParks, he met Louis Liebenberg, the co-founder and executive director of CyberTracker Conservation, a non-profit organisation that promotes a worldwide environmental monitoring network. Liebenberg proposed that trackers such as Benadie be trained to use handheld devices to capture their observations – information of great benefit to conservation and scientific research.

‘We are all one’

Although Benadie was illiterate, the icon-based interface allowed him to capture as many as 100 minute observation details a day. These included the black rhino’s behaviour and the seasonal variation in its feeding pattern. This is something Benadie had suggested, based on his year-round observation of the animal.

The result was a scientific paper in the journal, Pachyderm. As far as Liebenberg has been able to ascertain, it was the first time that an illiterate tracker co-authored a paper based on data he had collected to substantiate a hypothesis he himself had proposed.

In 2010, Benadie was appointed as the principal trainer for the Tracker Academy, near Graaff Reinet in the Eastern Cape. The academy is a division of the South African College for Tourism, which operates under the auspices of the Peace Parks Foundation.

Benadie now shares his extraordinary knowledge with young trackers from disadvantaged rural communities. He says he is proud of his work at the academy, and rightfully so: almost 95% of the graduates find permanent employment in the tourism and conservation fields. Even more importantly, perhaps, is the transfer of scarce indigenous skills to a new generation.

“People must get involved in nature,” he tells the interviewer, “because if you look at all the things in nature sticking together – the plants and animals, and human beings – we are all one. It’s our family.”

The original, signed portrait of Benadie will be auctioned at the end of the series and the proceeds donated to a charity of his choice.

Source: 21icons South Africa and SAinfo reporter