To me, it was a spot like any other we’d walked or driven through that morning: mats of yellow grasses over rich, red earth and scrubby trees with only the occasional winterthorn showing green. But Savory found plenty of animal signs.
At nearly 80, Savory is slight and nimble and keen to his surroundings. He wears green khaki shorts, a light cotton shirt and a wide-brimmed felt hat — but no shoes. He says this benefits tracking. “With every single footstep, I’m conscious of the temperature of the soil and its texture. Here, it’s cool,” he says, pressing a foot into the ground. Later, when the ground is too hot, he’ll reluctantly don a pair of Crocs or his thin-soled kudu-skin shoes that flap open where they’re worn through.
For Savory, tracking brought together his two passions: wildlife and the military. He grew up during World War II and was steeped in the romance of battle. “I was fiercely proud of Rhodesia’s role in the war,” he says. He considered attending the British Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst. “I didn’t want to be a peacetime soldier, so I went with my other passion, the bush.”
In the 1960s, at the start of the long civil war that yielded Zimbabwe’s independence, Savory was able to use his tracking expertise. He developed tactics suited to bush guerrilla warfare and established the Tracker Combat Unit that became the elite Selous Scout regiment, renowned for its counterinsurgency successes.
“I worked them from dawn to dusk,” Savory says. “You get splitting headaches because you have to concentrate without stop. There are no coffee breaks. If you’re at risk of getting shot at, you can’t afford to miss any cues.”
Since then, he has consulted on military tracking and countertracking — how to avoid being tracked. Over many years as a ranger, soldier and farmer, he studied the landscape and sought to understand why protected areas in southern Africa continued to deteriorate. While visiting a ranch in South Africa, it came together for him: He noticed a corner of a paddock where a large number of sheep had grazed for a short while. The animal impact had improved the soil so that seedlings were sprouting and the water had soaked in rather than run off.
He crouched to get a closer look. Where the sheep had been, the rich, moist soil was nourishing plant life. Elsewhere, the ground was hard and dry, and there were bare patches between plants. This led him to appreciate that animal disturbance could benefit as well as harm a landscape, and that this was how wild herds of grazing animals had maintained native grasslands.
The insight that sparked Holistic Management was that livestock could be made to act upon the land as their untamed counterparts had done. In practice, the holistic rancher constantly evaluates land condition and adjusts management accordingly. Doing this well depends on sharp and timely observation — just what tracking teaches.
For Savory, the African bush is alive and full of stories. He gleans the who, what, when and why of the land.