Harnessing ancient African game tracking skills to help businesses – Alex van den Heever

Alex van den Heever and Renias Mhlongo are world-renowned wildlife trackers. Their story of how they overcame trust issues and their vastly different backgrounds was penned in the book, Changing a Leopard’s Spots. Since the publication of the book, they have been invited around the world to share their experiences. In an interview with BizNews, Van den Heever revealed that the duo had faced trust issues after he suspected Mhlongo of being involved in rhino poaching. However, they managed to overcome their differences, rebuild trust, and are now using their experience to help businesses. They established the Tracking Success team-building company, which offers virtual team adventures and sessions at their news camp in Tshokwane in the Kruger National Park. Van den Heever describes it as the Rolls Royce version of their virtual adventures. The company helps corporates to understand how to get back on track when things go wrong, how to be curious, resilient, and show great adaptability and “reverence” where there is greater care for the environment, colleagues, and the animal that they track.

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:11 – Introduction
  • 00:52 – Alex van den Heever on the book and his background
  • 02:38 – Overcoming Mistrust
  • 05:50 – Rebuilding Trust
  • 07:07 – Book Release and Success
  • 12:34 – The Mindset of a Game Tracker
  • 15:12 – Applying Tracker Mindsets in Business
  • 15:46 – Tracker Academy and Business Workshops
  • 17:29 – Tshokwane River Camp and Future of South Africa

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Edited excerpts from the Interview

Two game trackers from very different backgrounds, like the moon talking to Mars

The book, Changing a leopard’s spots is about my 30-year journey with a man called, Renias Mhlongo, who is a Shangaan man. He was born in a mud hut underneath a jackalberry tree in what is today the Kruger National Park and was raised in the traditions of a hunter-gatherer. On the other side of the scale, I come from Plettenberg Bay, from the cattle farms of the Cape. When we arrived at Londolozi Game Reserve we were thrown together to become guide and tracker, ranger and tracker, it was like the moon talking to Mars. A short white man and a tall charismatic black man coming together and having to take people out on safaris. Wildlife has been a passion of mine my whole life. I was following a dream and had gone through all of the credited training, but when I got to Londolozi and had to take safaris, I realised how little I knew.

Over the last three decades, Renias Mhlongo has taught and mentored me. We’ve had a multitude of shared experiences, which has grown into a deep bond, a brotherhood, a kinship of some kind. That’s what the book is about. It’s how we did it. It was no walk in the park, let me tell you, from both of our sides. But we’ve managed to stick together, and what has resulted ultimately is a highly productive, incredibly fulfilling, beautiful relationship. I think I’ve seen a part of South Africa that many people do not see, and that’s what the book, Changing a leopard’s spots is about.

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Broken trust, accusations of rhino poaching 

We’ve been working together, I don’t know, 15 years or so. And in about 2010, the rhino poaching crisis took hold in Southern Africa. We went from losing one or two rhinos a year to losing 40 or 50 where we were working. And then countrywide, we were soon losing over a thousand rhinos a year. Basically, anybody who worked in a game reserve at that time became a suspect, potentially involved in some part of the chain of this rhino poaching crisis. A few things happened that made me think that Renias Mhlongo had gotten involved in a rhino poaching syndicate. So long story short, I approached him. There had been a few things like he started to speak English in the bush on his phone, which he never ever did before. We tracked a rhino with our tracker academy students one morning and found it dead with its horn cut off. I knew the village in which he lived, there had been some convicted poachers who knew Renias Mhlongo and Renias Mhlongo knew them. I concocted in my mind this narrative that he must be involved. There were a few other things, and one night at three o’clock in the morning, I approached him.

I confronted him and I said to him, ‘I think you’re involved.’ And he immediately said to me, ‘What would you like me to do to prove you wrong?’ And I didn’t really have an answer. I didn’t expect him to respond like that. And he said, ‘Well, I’ve got an idea. Let’s go for a polygraph test. But on one condition, you do it too,’ he says to me. So that’s fine. We drove to White River. We had one done. He passed, I passed. He said, ‘That’s not good enough.’ We drove to Johannesburg and had a second one done, which he passed. And you ask yourself, why did I distrust him after so many years of working with him? The truth is that I have all kinds of biases as a white person having grown up in this country. There’s no other way to say it really. I had concocted a story in my mind based on my biases.

That set us on a journey to building trust. We started to communicate much more closely. I started to spend a lot more time at his home in his village of Dixie. I started to feel a lot more empathy from him, him to me. And I started to open my heart, I became a lot more vulnerable. And the incident actually took us to a new level of vulnerability. And it was a breakthrough really, and it needed to happen. In our instance, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone who’s trying to form a relationship with somebody from a different culture, but that was the painful period we went through. But ultimately, trust is about three things. It’s about being authentic, about being empathetic, and it’s about being logical in the way you communicate your judgments

Gaynor Rupert and the Trackers Academy that have trained 266 from rural villages

Renias Mhlongo is one of the world’s most renowned trackers, and he comes from a family of trackers. Two of his brothers, Phineas and Almon, were also renowned trackers. They’re like the Barrett brothers from All Black Rugby. They just don’t come around very often. These three Mhlongo brothers worked with John Varty in the early days of Londolozi, putting together those wonderful documentaries. And Renias is from Klaserie. So, when I worked with Renias, we started to have a conversation about how we ensure that these ancient African-born skills of tracking are not lost when the Mhlongo brothers and the likes move on. So, in 2009, we resigned from our comfortable jobs at Londolozi and we went into the chilly wind of unemployment with a dream to create a school that would restore these skills.

We travelled around America. We funded our passage by teaching people the racking. We tracked grizzlies in North America, in Yellowstone, and jaguars in Amazon, and so on. In doing that, we did presentations to try and raise money for our idea. And after a year travelling through different countries, we came home to South Africa without a single dollar to show for our efforts.

We wanted to raise money to create a school, and on the beach in Plettenberg Bay when I was days away from telling Renias we must go and get our jobs back at Londolozi; I was introduced to the Rupert family and specifically Gaynor Rupert. We made contact and formed a relationship that ultimately resulted in Gaynor funding and founding the Tracker Academy, which is an NGO that Gaynor, Renias, and I started 14 years ago. It has trained 266 young men and women from rural villages. A statistic we’re most proud of is that 95.6% of those are now in permanent conservation jobs, all of whom were unemployed. A  statistic we’re most proud of is that 95 .6 % of those are now in permanent conservation jobs, all of whom were unemployed. 

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The mindset of a game tracker

Master game trackers have a certain mindset and we are now teaching these mindsets. We’ve realised that you have to develop five mindsets to track and deal with the complexity that you are dealt with. You’re in a vast environment. You’re in an area that is wordless. There are no consultants, no algorithms, no signposts to consult and it’s wild. It’s all beyond your control.

To deal with that, the master develops these five mindsets that we have distilled and that we now use to work with corporates to understand when they go off track, how to get back on track, how to track better, and how to adopt the mindset and the mentality of a master animal tracker.

We start with discernment. You have to have a discerning mindset to even find the track and be able to tell the difference between a leopard and a lion’s footprint. That requires analysis, detail-oriented. The next is when you start to follow the trail, you want to be curious, you want to be asking questions constantly, you want to be investigating. Nothing is discounted. At some point, you’re going to lose the track because we never track a lion without losing it at some point. I’m not talking about tracking a dog on the beach where you can see footprint for footprint. I’m talking about difficult environments. Even the masters lose track. We all go off-track in life and do we have the resilience to get back on track. The trackers show great adaptability. They’re humble. They’re prepared to face the facts when they go off track. They will go back to the last time they were on track and follow again with extra care.

Renias Mhlongo is always the first to say when he’s lost the trail. The fourth mindset is one of imagination, practical imagination. It is constantly saying, ‘I’m trying to understand what the animal is doing. I’m trying to know how the landscape up ahead is affecting that animal’s movement. I’m also reconciling that with what the details, the track details are. The answers to those three questions help you build a narrative, a mental picture of what that animal is doing and that helps these trackers to leapfrog and to get ahead.

Game trackers with ‘reverence’ have less bad encounters 

The final mindset is one of reverence, which in many ways makes all the others possible. This idea that I care for the environment, I care for my colleagues, I care for the animal, I have deep care for this environment in which I work. We find that trackers with reverence have fewer bad encounters. They are safer, they’re more aware. And yes, there’s a greater self-awareness about them generally. So, these are the five mindsets. They’re a constellation, they go together, they work together. They’re an interrelated group of activities, really. They go together to ensure that the tracker can make sense of his environment and track these highly elusive and sometimes dangerous animals.

Taking an ancient skill in Africa to help businesses, new Tshokane camp

We’ve opened up a separate company called Wild Science, which has a product called Tracking Success. The website is trackingsuccess.tv and that is the platform from which we operate all the tracking. So, all the tracking metaphors that go into helping business and basically, we take an ancient skill born here in Africa to help solve modern business problems. That is what our mission is.

We have been going for about four and a half years and we’re getting a lot of interest from places like Germany, the UK and Australia. We’ve focused a bit on the international market and now want to focus on South African businesses.   What we did was we filmed ourselves tracking these animals and we turned that into an interactive documentary where we can give a tracking experience to an audience virtually. We can put them in the same tracking situations that we were in and ask them to make the decisions that we had to make in real time. So, we run it both in the boardroom or in a big conference.

The Rolls Royce version is for us to take them to our new camp in Tshokwane in Southern Kruger National Park to do it in. That’s what we really like to do is to take people in the bush because that’s when we see transformation. Renias and I have always dreamed of our own game reserve, and it finally came to light last year in July.

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