Louis Liebenberg: Call of the Wild

Liebenberg runs a software company that offers an animal-tracking program for handheld devices


He’s been charged by a rhinoceros. He’s been stalked by a lion. He even survived the dot-com implosion with his software company intact.

Of the thousands of people who started software companies in the go-go 1990s, surely Louis Liebenberg followed the most tortuous path to the helm of a software start-up. For one thing, it went through the Kalahari bush.

Liebenberg is the owner of CyberTracker Software Ltd., a four-person company in Cape Town, South Africa. CyberTracker’s acclaimed program for Palm and Pocket PC handhelds simplifies and automates the task of monitoring the locations, populations, and movements of wildlife. Available free at http://www.cybertracker.org, the software has been a huge hit with wildlife officials, conservationists, zoologists, field biologists, animal trackers, and antipoaching officers. Nearly 2000 people per month have been downloading Version 3 of the software.

“Louis Liebenberg is a fascinating person,” says Jeff Hawkins, chief technology officer of Palm Inc., in Sunnyvale, Calif. “When people ask me about the most interesting application for handheld computers I have seen, I tell them about Louis and CyberTracker.”

The beauty of the program lies in its user interface, which Liebenberg conceived to be usable by African Bushmen who can’t read or write. To record a sighting of a group of animals, the user simply chooses from a menu of pictograms—Impalas, Plains Zebras, African Elephants—then taps the screen the appropriate number of times: five taps means five animals. The user can even record animal tracks through a menu of footprint pictograms.

The handhelds are all equipped with Global Positioning System cards, so the location and time of the sighting are added to the record automatically. A simple hot-sync transfers all the data to a color-coded map that offers an immediate and compelling view of where animals are roaming, congregating, eating, and sleeping.

Liebenberg got the idea of using software to aid animal tracking and conservation during a personal odyssey that began in 1980, oddly enough, with an undergraduate course on the philosophy of science. He had been studying physics and applied math at the University of Cape Town when he became seized with a vague but deep conviction that the answers to some of the fundamental questions about the origins of science were to be found in animal tracking, as practiced for millennia by Bushmen in central and southern Africa.

He resolved to write a book on tracking, and to do it properly, he would go and live with the Bushmen of the Kalahari in Botswana and Namibia, learning how to track and hunt from them.

It was a fairly extreme decision, for several reasons. First, having grown up under apartheid in Cape Town, he had had no exposure even to the culture of urban black Africans, let alone Bushmen. “I had my first interaction with black people when I was 21 years old, when I started my research on tracking,” he explains. As he prepared to go off into the bush, he recalls, “my first girlfriend dropped me, and my parents thought I was crazy.”

He spent the years from 1985 to 1995 tracking and hunting with Bushmen. They would be gone for weeks or months, subsisting partly on roots, berries, porcupine, foxes, springhare (“like a large rat, actually”). At night, they would keep a big fire going or sleep in zipped tents, to discourage lions and hyenas. (Helpful hint: always zip your tent on the Kalahari plain, because packs of hyenas have been known to drag people out of unzipped tents and kill them.)

Once, near Lone Tree, as he and his companions left camp, they ran straight into a lion that was stalking them. They shouted to scare it off. Another time, they came upon a lioness with cubs; it charged them. In such a situation, “you stand still and call their bluff,” Liebenberg says. With a rhino, on the other hand, he advises getting out of the way, “because it’s not stopping.”

Liebenberg wrote two books based on those years in the Kalahari, The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science and A Field Guide to Animal Tracks of Southern Africa, both published in 1990. He also developed the theory that continues to drive much of his intellectual agenda: that tracking is the origin of science. One of the great mysteries of the philosophy of science is Washburn’s paradox, named for the late Sherwood L. Washburn, an anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley. Stripped to its essentials, the paradox notes that the human brain evolved primarily while we were hunter-gatherers, and yet that same brain today somehow manages to do particle physics and number theory.

Out in the bush, Liebenberg noticed that tracking depends on the interpretation of myriad little details. To find an animal, Bushmen don’t simply follow footprints, which generally disappear after tens of meters at most. Instead, trackers draw on a vast knowledge of animal behaviors, routines, living and eating habits, terrain, and causal relationships suggested by signs and clues to figure out what the animal was doing and, therefore, where it was going.

“With tracks and signs, you have to create hypothetical, causal connections between them, because you didn’t see what the animal did. You have to visualize what the animal did,” Liebenberg says. “That’s the essence of physics,” he adds. “You’re dealing with processes you can’t see.”

By the mid-1990s, he had had another insight. When skilled Bushmen are tracking, he says, “they absorb an enormous amount of information from tracks and signs. I realized if you could capture that on a computer, it would be a huge value to conservation and even scientific research.”

Liebenberg joined forces with a young undergraduate software whiz at the University of Cape Town, Justin Steventon, who wrote an animal-tracking program for the Palm, when that handheld started to emerge as the leader. Thus was born CyberTracker.

The fledgling company’s big break came in 1998, when Liebenberg won a Rolex Award, a prestigious annual honor recognizing contributions to conservation. The cash prize was US $50 000, but the publicity value was much greater: it brought CyberTracker to the attention of European Community officials, who decided to give Liebenberg a grant of €2 million. That money still provides 80 percent of CyberTracker’s operating expenses.

With his EC funding set to run out later this year, he is grappling with the future of CyberTracker. He needs to find a new benefactor, he figures, or start charging customers for downloads—something he’s reluctant to do, for fear of diminishing the valuable feedback from users—or go into hibernation until he can sort things out.

Worst case, he says, he can go back to tracking, guiding tours, and evaluating trackers, while the CyberTracker user base gets big enough for the business to become self-sustaining.

In between such strategizing, Liebenberg finds time to evaluate new handhelds, do some tracking, and correspond with such philosophers of science as Edward O. Wilson, Peter Carruthers, and Steven Pinker. He also likes to teach younger trackers and evaluate them to determine their ratings in what has become an increasingly professional occupation. With the emergence of hordes of well-heeled adventure tourists willing to pay upward of $1000 a day to see lions and rhinos in their natural habitats, the demand for skilled trackers has outstripped the supply.

After a long day evaluating trackers this past October in the Singita Private Game Reserve in South Africa’s huge Kruger National Park, Liebenberg unwinds over an ostrich filet in a red-wine sauce as the guest of Singita’s management. In the Singita reserve’s ultraplush Sweni Lodge, he explains what he likes most about his life. It’s “the extreme contrasts...tracking lions all day, and at the end of the day, coming here,” he says, waving an arm to indicate Sweni’s luxurious and stylish dining room, which is frequented by movie stars and business tycoons. “It’s an unreality check.”

It’s also a pretty good life—if you remember to zip your tent.

Louis Liebenberg

AGE: 45

WHAT HE DOES: Runs a software company that offers an animal-tracking program for handheld devices; trains and evaluates animal trackers.

FOR WHOM: CyberTracker Software Ltd.

WHERE HE DOES IT: Noordhoek, Cape Town, South Africa, and in game parks and reserves all over the world.

FUN FACTORS: Tracks exotic animals, evaluates state-of-the-art handhelds, sleeps and dines free of charge in the world’s most exclusive game reserves.