Tracking Animals Like The Pros

National Geographic Channel’s new series “The Savage Line” examines the hazardous jobs of individuals who navigate nature’s most unpredictable landscapes and protect humans whose interests lie within grasp of dangerous elements of the natural world. Their trade takes them deep into the wild to protect livelihoods that depend on keeping dangerous animals out – archeologists at a snake-infested dig site, wild life photographers attempting to get close to wild bison. In order to make these things happen, these men must become non-lethal hunters and observers, tracking animals in different ways to keep their subjects safe.

Although techniques and methods change depending on species, weather, and time of day, certain skills are vital. It’s key to understand what you’re tracking, which is more difficult than it sounds, particularly in complex ecosystems. Size, shape, and spacing between tracks can help do this. For example, one can tell a dog from a bobcat by ensuring that the print has nail marks and toes, signature parts of the dog trail mark largely absent from the bobcat trail. The gait, or how the animal walks, allows a professional tracker to predict where an animal is headed. This is extremely important, as not each track will be visible, and it’s sometimes necessary to imagine where the animal may have gone, and it will be easier to pick up the trail.

Rob Hardy from "The Savage Line"

Of course, a professional tracker also looks for scats. A good tracker can tell what animal they’re tracking not only by size and shape, but by visual content: scats can contain fur, indicating that you’re dealing with a predator. Some animals scrape around the area to cover their scat with dirt, a sign that you may be dealing with a bobcat.

Tracking animals isn’t just crouching in the dirt looking for foot prints. Ultimately, a good tracker is somewhat of an ecologist (if not an ecologist, outright). They’ll be familiar not only with the minute differences in the behaviors and physical traits of animal species – does the animal have toes or hooves? Does the animal walk, gallop or hop? Is the animal an herbivore or omnivore? But they’ll also know the surrounding environment

But just understanding wildlife and ecosystems isn’t always enough. There are physical limitations to tracking, which allow for human error. Many of these involve disturbing the ecosystem. When in wildlife areas that could alert the animal to your presence or disturb the environment significantly, patience and quiet is key. Heel-toe movements – essentially rolling your feet from the heel smoothly through the toe – soften your step significantly, and can help if getting close to an animal. A skilled tracker also never walks on the spoor! When the trail inevitably goes dry, trackers must retrace or fan out in different directions, something made much harder when the only tracks they can find are their own.

Some novices may strain their eyes searching for prints, but professionals know that tracking is easiest in the morning or midday, when the track shadows are elongated. When the sun is shining directly overhead, it can be much more difficult to determine the specifics of an indentation. Prints also need to be determined for age, as old prints that are visible in some places may have eroded significantly in others.

Pick up a few more tracking tips tonight on the series premiere of “The Savage Line” tonight at 10P. Can’t wait? Watch this preview. In order to get a close up shot of the herd, a cameraman uses a buffalo hide to travel undetected:

Tonight at 10P, on The Savage Line: Buffalo Stampede, before an archeological team arrives, Cory Valdes must trek deep into the Belize jungle to clear a cave site of two types of extremely venomous snakes, but heavy rain makes for an even riskier situation. Meanwhile, near the badlands of South Dakota, Jason Lesmeister and a wildlife photographer use a buffalo hide to capture unique, close-range photos of bison, but what happens next is certainly not on the agenda.


    May 30, 2014, 7:52 pm

    Hi.. how does one get to be a good animal tracker? Thanks.

  2. Rob Hardy
    June 10, 2014, 2:08 am

    A good way to get started is to pick-up a comprehensive field guide which illustrates wild animal tracks and tracking techniques. There are several literary field guides available which aid in the identification of animal tracks. Also, comprehensive literary articles and books, which discuss animal behavior and animal evolution or biology, will help when trying to determine where to search for tracks. Of course, one of the best ways to develop tracking skill and wildlife observation skill, is to come under the direct tutoring of an accomplished tracker.

  3. Cindy Clark
    Concord, California
    June 12, 2014, 12:24 am

    Mr. Hardy, May I ask what brand of spotting scope you use?

  4. Rob Hardy
    June 21, 2014, 8:34 pm

    Hello, Cindy.

    I apologize for the delay when responding to your question, but I’ve been in the field while dealing with grizzly bears in Alaska.

    In any case, the brand of spotting scope I currently use is Bausch & Lomb and it’s the Elite model. However, I’m not sure if this model of spotting scope is still available from the manufacturer.

    I have preferred this make and model of spotting scope, because of it’s compact size, relatively light weight, dependability under extreme conditions and excellent optical quality.

    I’ve had this particular brand and model of spotting scope the past 20 years.

  5. Vanns40
    June 27, 2014, 6:32 pm

    As a firearms instructor for more than 35 years I’d like someone, ANYONE, to tell Rob Hardy to PLEASE take a course on safe firearms handling. Geez, I have never seen anyone handle a rifle so carelessly than him. I would never want to be the person standing in back of him. Has anybody noticed how many times in one show the muzzle of his rifle is pointed at his partner’s chest or his partner’s head? Holy crap! I’d have failed him in the first 15 seconds of any class he took from me.

  6. Vann
    June 27, 2014, 11:14 pm

    So, you don’t like a comment so you won’t print it?

  7. Rob Hardy
    September 14, 2014, 1:55 am


    I come from a long family history of law enforcement and military occupation. I’ve also completed and passed two hunter safety courses during my lifetime. One thing that I’ve learned from many decades of escorting clients in the field and working with colleagues (other wildlife deterrent experts) is to never negotiate any terrain feature while having a loaded weapon. Firearms are to always be unloaded — magazine full, chamber empty — at all times. In that way, there’s no chance for an accidental discharge.

    Rob Hardy
    Registered Guide/Outfitter License #0887

  8. Rob Hardy
    September 14, 2014, 5:10 am


    I come from a long family history of law enforcement and military occupation. In addition, I’ve successfully completed two (2) sate sanctioned hunter safety courses in two separate states, One thing I’ve learned after decades of traversing the backcountry and after decades of escorting clients in the backcountry, is that firearms are unloaded at all times In that way, an accidental discharge is not possible.

    Rob Hardy