Isaia Byele is one of the best game scouts in the business. He sat down with us and talked us through how he keeps so many animals healthy and safe.
Game scouts are an impressive breed. A good game scout can not only find animals on large and well-camouflaged reserves but will know things about their health, size and numbers before he even catches a glimpse. Isaia Byele is one the best and most intuitive in the business. Very little happens at Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve (VLNR) without Isaia knowing about it. But making sure thousands of wild animals (from elephants to birds) are happy and healthy is no small task. We sat down with Isaia at VLNR to learn more about what it takes to fill his shoes.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
MG: Can you tell us what exactly a day in the life of a game scout looks like?
IB: I do all kinds of work on this reserve. I maintain and watch the fences, I fix pipes, I make sure all the watering holes are working and I keep tabs on all of the animals and make sure that they’re all doing okay. It's my job to find out what needs to be done and then I do it.
MG: In such a large space, when you can’t know where animals are at any given time, how do you check up on them?
IB: I’ve spent my whole life here so I know this place. I know the way the animals move and where they like to spend time. But I also spend a lot of time sitting quietly and just listening. I can hear things and I know what they mean. So if I hear a high tree branch breaking, I can tell you that there’s an elephant nearby. I don’t have to see it. I just have to hear what it’s doing or observe how other animals are behaving.
MG: What do you mean by how other animals are behaving?
IB: You can learn a lot by looking at the birds, as an example. What birds are in an area? What are they doing? Are the flocking away because they were just scared or disturbed by something or are they circling because there has been a fresh kill and they want a piece of it? Things like that can tell you a lot if you know what they mean.
MG: How else can you track animals?
IB: By looking at their droppings. Is the dropping new? Is it fresh?
MG: You were also showing us how to spot them by their tracks. Can you tell us more about that?
IB: So you’re always looking for tracks. When you find tracks, you want to see if they're fresh.
"All of these broken trees were not always broken."
MG: How can you tell if they’re fresh?
IB: The wind. It blows the sand around. If there is only a little bit of sand on top of the track, then you know it’s fresh. If it’s older tracks, there will be more sand. In that way, it’s easy to tell if a track was made today or yesterday.
MG: We’ve also seen you picking up a handful of sand and then letting it fall through your fingers. What’s that about?
IB: Safety is the top concern. If we want to get closer to elephants, it’s better that they can’t smell us. If the sand blows away from the elephants, then it’s safer to be a little closer because they won’t know you’re there just from your smell. If the sand is going toward the elephants then the elephants probably already know we’re there. The elephants will be lifting up their trunk in the air. We have to be even more careful.
MG: And what does it mean when an elephant is lifting its trunk in the air?
IB: She’s got the smell of something. When she lifts it straight up, she’s trying to see what’s around her by smelling it too. For a mama elephant, safety for their babies is a top concern too.
MG: We’ve seen you in action and you’re really impressive. How long have you been working here?
IB: I was born in this country. This is my life. I work in this place and I learn every day.
MB: What do you think makes a good game scout?
IG: You have to be good at sitting still and listening quietly. That's not something that everyone is good at. And when you listen, you have to really listen: to the birds, the wind, branches breaking and leaves moving. Of course, there is exciting stuff happening a lot but if you don't like being out in the bush and listening for a long time, you won't be good at this and you probably won't like it either.
MG: Since you’ve been here, how have you seen the elephant population grow?
IB: Before this place was not like now what you see today. All of these broken trees were not always broken. I mean, you can see elephant damage on almost all of the trees. The road that you drive in to get here, there aren’t any trees left. That’s why we have to move these elephants. We have to lower the population in this reserve. Otherwise, soon enough, there will be no trees at all.
To learn more about Isaia, the plight of the elephants and VLNR, check out Moving Giants: