© Chris Johns/National Geographic Stock
By Chris Johns
Klaas Kruiper could read the tracks left by wild animals the way other people read books. He was a bushman, one of southern Africa’s indigenous people.
Bushmen—there are about 85,000 left—teeter on the brink of cultural extinction. Klaas, who’d been a ranger in the Kalahari-Gemsbok National Park in Botswana, but who’d gone back to tracking—was tall and slender. He was quiet and shy, a man of few words. He didn’t walk—he glided across the red sand dunes of the Kalahari. If an animal made a mark in the sand, he could say who made it, when, how fast it was traveling, its weight, and if it were well fed. He could examine a blade of grass and calculate how long ago it had been bent by a passing wind or animal, taking into account temperature, humidity and the size of the animal. He studied ants to calculate how many grains of sand they had moved inside a track in a specific interval. In short, he was a man completely in tune with his surroundings.
Dispossessed, displaced, many bushmen live lives of quiet desperation and Klaas was no exception. He’d struggled with addiction. He had marital problems. I’ll never forget the awful moment when I got a phone call from Paul Funston, a lion researcher working in the Kalahari who had invited me to track lions with Klaas. I had known Klaas for five years at that point, and jumped at the chance. Then one day the phone rang. “Our trip is cancelled,” Paul said, and I could hear the sob in his voice. “Klaas has been murdered.” I never found out why he was murdered. Only that he’d been stabbed with a knife. There are those you meet on assignment who become deeply embedded in your memory and, even, your soul. They are extraordinary humans and their loss becomes a loss, not just for friends and family, but for all of humanity. Klaas Kruiper was such a man.