Early in my career as a nature guide, Renias and I received a radio call that a female leopard was seen feeding on a bushbuck kill.

The announcement was specific about the location.

As we neared, Renias gestured for me to turn left.

‘That’s not the place,’ I said. ‘It’s to the right’.

‘Ok, but I think there’s a leopard over there,’ replied Renias indifferently, pointing to a large jackalberry tree.

‘Jika ximatsi’, he said.

By now our excitable group of guests were raining questions on me. They were VIP’s and I felt compelled to show them a good sighting. And we had a reliable report which I intended using.

There was no time to waste following Renias’s hunch.

‘Jika ximatsi..ximatsi means left’ repeated Renias, now irate with my apparent contrariness. By now the guests had noticed his displeasure with me.

Not wanting to make a scene I grudgingly swung the Land Rover eastwards – following his suggestion to go left.

About halfway along Renias said, ‘hatlisa (faster), the leopard is moving now’.

Moments later a magnificent female leopard emerged from the woodland. The guests were awestruck. ‘Renias is a genius!’ pronounced one of them. “He speaks squirrel!” exclaimed another.

Incredibly, he used a tree squirrel’s faint danger call to determine the leopard’s presence and to interpret its behaviour.

I came to learn that it’s nearly impossible to successfully track a leopard without considering the alarm calls made by other animals.

The truth is that I had no chance of finding it myself. If it weren’t for Renias, our VIPs would likely not have seen a leopard.

I was oblivious to an entire dimension of nature’s language. I wasn’t even aware that I was unaware. I also lacked the technical ability to recognise the omnipresent chirps of intelligence all around me.

And the pressure to deliver for my guests caused me to become hyper focussed – further impairing my awareness.

Our everyday lives are filled with signals – many of which go totally unnoticed.

My friend Grant Ashfield says, ‘An alarm call is a message from the future – it represents danger, the need to slow down, be vigilant and pay attention’.

And they come in many forms..

Niggling feelings of restlessness, apprehension, or recurring mistakes, maybe the first signs that you’re losing track.

For leaders, dull meetings, poor trust, people operating in silos, and lacking in accountability – are clues that the team is in peril.

For organisations, the departure of good people, the entry of a competitor, and diminishing engagement – are signals.

The difficulty is that most signals are as faint as a squirrel’s call among the cacophony of others. And they’re often inconvenient too – the timing doesn’t necessarily suit.

The irony is that warning signs lead to opportunity – either from wisdom gained by avoiding danger, or the realisation of a goal – like finding a leopard.

The biggest threat of all is choosing to ignore the signs. Or being reluctant to act.

Noticing an alarm call is the first step in the journey of change – towards greater prospects.

Expert wildlife trackers rely on nature’s signs to find the animals they pursue. And for their safety.

Spend 5 minutes thinking about alarm calls you may have noticed in the last 24 hours. Can you interpret them, and more importantly, are you prepared to act on them?

Sign up for Tracking Success. We dedicate one of our campfire conversations to discussing alarm calls in our professional lives.

Alex with the hunter-gathers

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Hunter-gatherers practised the most successful lifestyle strategy in human history – lasting some 200,000 years, so what is the Hunter-gatherer secret?

The Ju/’hoansi trackers in north-western Botswana, with whom Renias and I have spent time, epitomise the modern hunter-gatherer. No longer nomadic, they live in a permanent village and rely somewhat on livestock for protein, but still, hunt by traditional means.

Until about 12,000 years ago humans relied solely on hunting, fishing and foraging.

For the hunter-gatherer, the business of finding food is an important daily activity.

The complex animal sign must be correctly interpreted to secure a meal, or detect danger. A vast number of plant species are also utilised for sustenance and medicinal remedies.

The complex animal sign

Because the environment in which they operate is wordless, hunter-gatherers develop an acute sensitivity for nature’s cues. A subtle change in the pitch of a bird’s call, or a slight turn in humidity, means a great deal to them.

They are experts at noticing. A virtue that extends to their human relationships too.

Although opportunistic they seldom seek to over-exploit. For the Ju/’hoansi hoarding is frowned upon. They understand that their survival is inextricably linked to a thriving, sustainable ecosystem.

This is ecological literacy in action.

Despite the challenging conditions they face to obtain a meal, they work less and enjoy more leisure time than people of industrialised societies. Interestingly, their varied diet makes them healthier too.

Qam Kgamxoo explains the burrowing behaviour of a springhare

Humour is a constant feature of their social interactions. And one doesn’t need to understand their language to get its value!

Historically their societies were classless – all members were born equal – with no permanent leaders. A life of such profound purpose means formalised authority is less important.

If we measure success by physical and mental health, then it can be argued that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is a remarkably successful one.

The Hunter-gatherer secret

So, what happened 12,000 years ago?

Driven by a greater need for food security and perhaps, just convenience, gradually societies began learning how to domesticate crops and animals.

This was the genesis of agriculture and early civilisation. And it had a profound impact on how we live, eat and interact with each other.

A few things happened though. For one, humans began storing more food which increased the quantity people ate. Secondly, it led to large permanent communities in which disease became prevalent.

The Hunter-gatherer secret

Ironically, the shift also coincided with a decrease in the quality of food consumed – a legacy that continues to afflict modern societies to this day.

Most interestingly, the transition to agriculture marked the beginnings of inequality. Because those who controlled the surpluses assumed the power.

Farming also triggered the now-universal belief in hard work and the benefits of profit.

Successful crop cultivation is delicately linked to the seasons – meaning early farmers became more conscious of time – causing the future to take on far greater value.

By contrast, hunter-gatherers tend to focus on their immediate needs.

Successful crop cultivation

The agricultural societies grew rapidly and out-competed the hunter-gatherers in most places.

The original farmers were geographically lucky. Fortunate to live in places with crops and animals that are easily domesticated, which gave them a distinct advantage.

It had nothing to do with intellect or genetics.

In the end, our need for profit, power and convenience spelt the end of the hunter-gatherer age. Even though it meant working harder, less freedom and being more sickly.

The farmers ultimately left us with literature, the arts and technology – which we’ve developed to astonishing levels.

the-hunter-gatherer-secret

The hunter-gatherers left us with a connection to the natural world – which is sadly fading.

Malcolm Gladwell sums it up well, “Praising ourselves for being civilised is no guarantee of survival. We can be law-abiding and peace-loving and tolerant and inventive and committed to freedom and true to our own values and still behave in ways that are biologically suicidal.”

The hunter-gatherer secret is their relationships.

For there is no civilisation without a legitimate partnership with the earth.

The Ju/’hoansi trackers in north-western Botswana