This time round, it features a man of whom few outside the conservation community would have heard, yet he possesses some of the scarcest skills that enable him to preserve precious indigenous knowledge.

The 50-year-old Karel Benadie is a master tracker, one of only a handful of people in South Africa accorded this status. “Karel Benadie is basically a magician of the bush,” says photographer and filmmaker Adrian Steirn, the creator of 21 Icons. “I see grass, I see rocks, I see sky; he sees a complete wonderland and he can read that location like a book.”

For the short film and portrait, which will be screened on SABC3 at 18:57 on Sunday, 8 December and published in the Sunday Times respectively, Steirn took Benadie back to the place of his birth — the Karoo National Park, near Beaufort West in the Western Cape.

It was here, on the farm Stoltzhoek, that Benadie joined his father as a young child looking after sheep and tracking the jackal and caracal that had escaped their traps. Walking the arid Karoo with his dad instilled in Benadie a love of nature that would set him on the path to a career that includes contributing to a scientific paper on the highly endangered black rhino – even though, at the time, he could not read or write.

At the age of 14, when the farm he lived on was incorporated into the Karoo National Park, Benadie joined what is today known as the South African National Parks authority (SANParks) as a general worker. Soon, however, his apparent knowledge of animals and the veld took him away from mending fences and into work as a field ranger, researcher and tracker.

He would work for SANParks for 33-years, 16 of which he spent tracking the black rhino. This is how he met his mentor, Louis Liebenberg, co-founder and executive director of CyberTracker Conservation, a nonprofit, public benefit organisation that promotes a worldwide environmental monitoring network.

Liebenberg realised that it would be of great benefit to conservation and scientific research to capture the observations of trackers, yet most of them, like Benadie, were illiterate. The solution was an icon-based user interface on a hand-held computer that allowed Benadie to capture as many as 100 minute observation details a day.

These included the black rhino’s behaviour and the seasonal variation in its feeding pattern — which Benadie had suggested exists in the first place because of his year-round observation of the animal. The result was a scientific paper in the journal “Pachyderm”, and as far as Liebenberg has been able to ascertain, it was the first time that an illiterate tracker co-authored a paper based on data he had collected himself, independently with no supervision, to substantiate a hypothesis he himself had proposed.

In 2010, Benadie joined the Tracker Academy as its principal trainer. The academy is a division of the South African College for Tourism, which operates under the auspices of the Peace Parks Foundation. Based at Samara Game Reserve near Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape, this is where Benadie now shares his extraordinary knowledge with young trackers from disadvantaged rural communities.

He is extremely proud of his work at the academy, and rightfully so — almost 95% of the graduates find permanent employment in the tourism and conservation fields. Perhaps more important, though, is the transfer of extremely scarce indigenous skills to a new generation.

And for Benadie this is vital. “People must get involved in nature,” he says in 21 Icons, “because if you look at all the things in nature sticking together – the plants and animals, and human beings – we are all one, it’s our family.”

Steirn’s portrait of Benadie shows him in a leopard crawl position, as he would when he tracks wildlife, on the terrain that he has walked his whole life and on which he reads stories hidden from the untrained eye. Caught in soft dawn light, his weathered face, in a close-up frame, is testament to years of hard work in an extremely inhospitable environment.

“Shooting a portrait of Karel where he was born, in his own environment and in an almost animalistic pose is a simple, beautiful representation of who he really is,” says Steirn. “He is one of the few practitioners of an almost dying art, and without people like him passing on this tradition of showing others how to track, how to understand their natural environment, we will lose a part of us.

“And therefore, as an icon, he represents the unsung heroes of the conservation community.”

The original, signed portrait of Benadie will be auctioned at the end of the series and the proceeds donated to a charity of his choice.

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21 Icons South Africa is sponsored by Mercedes-Benz South Africa, Nikon and Deloitte and supported by The Department of Arts and Culture as a nation-building initiative.