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Introducing the Sherlock Holmes of animal tracks

Jean-Louis Orengo is able to deduce a great deal just from the traces animals leave behind – and he is keen to impart his knowledge of a little-known branch of science to others

A bracing hike on a crisp winter day does more than just blow the cobwebs away – it can also bring walkers closer to nature as the damp underfoot conditions make it ideal for spotting animal tracks. But while many of us will wonder about the identity of the creatures that have crossed our path, one man could not only identify them, he could tell you a lot about how they are faring in the cold months – and he is eager to pass on some understanding of his specialist scientific expertise.

Jean-Louis Orengo is passionate about ichnology, a mix of geologyand biology which focuses on animal traces like footprints and burrows. Fascinating in its own right, Mr Orengo’s particular area of interest – neoichnology (the study of fresh tracks) – is also an unintrusive way of monitoring wildlife. He says he was not a good pupil. “I didn’t like school – it was boring. But I love to learn things and I discovered ichnology through my passion for nature, which I’ve always loved. “I started following footprints and tracking animals when I was out hunting. But then I just got interested in tracking them for the sake of finding out about them.” Mr Orengo is a keen hunter and also fishes, collects mushrooms, and photographs the countryside. He said he discovered ichnology was a genuine science when he met a naturalist in the Pyrenees who was studying plants, insects, and mammals.

“It’s not particularly well-known to the public, but ichnology is a well-established science often used in palaeontology for identifying dinosaur tracks, working out their species, weight, behaviour, how fast they moved, all sorts of information. “You can even discover their personal identity, diet and gender.” He started taking mouldings of the tracks he found, and began making moulds of wild animal tracks in the snow during a five-month field-trip to Canada, where he learned to interpret the results. He went on to lead more expeditions in Canada and Gabon, and became passionate about teaching his skills to a new generation.

Later, while on a trip to Morocco, he became interested in making moulds of animal prints in sand, and is now investigating the possibilities of preserving underwater tracks. He said: “Obviously, animals leave tracks from wading into the water, but fish and other aquatic life also leave their tracks on the ocean floor.” He likens ichnology to detective work. “You explore and discover facts
using clues, aiming to find out the truth about what animals do and where they go.”

He has passed on his knowledge to park rangers working in France’s nature reserves and says they also found it fascinating. “It’s a new way of looking at things, which complements their current skills. It’s about working out the psychology of animals – why did they do this or that. “Now, they use this in their work, not just to find out which animals are present, but also to discover how they
behave, and check on their well-being. Using ichnology, you can map territories – and often tracks appear long before you sight the animal itself.”Despite his school experience, Mr Orengo is passionate about passing on

Despite his school experience, Mr Orengo is passionate about passing on his knowledge, and his theme park Au Pays des Traces ( in Saint-Lizier, about an hour’s drive
south of Toulouse, is designed to transmit the skills he has acquired. It is set in the heart of the Parc Naturel Régional des Pyrénées Ariégeoises, making it a great place to visit before hiking  through the park. ”It’s for both children and adults, with workshops and activities adapted to various age-groups. It’s not at all like the school I went to... it’s much more fun! “And there are activities for adults too. It’s best to come for a whole day in the summer, or an afternoon out of season. Once you’ve been to the park you’ll understand so much more of what you see hiking through the national park.”

Mr Orengo seems to have boundless energy, going into schools to give talks, passing on his knowledge to park rangers, running the theme park, marketing his invention ‘La Georgette’ and now he’s thinking about writing a book. “I haven’t started writing yet because it’s difficult to fit everything in – I do work a lot. “But succeeding with projects gives us the means to continue. Giving classes in schools is really important, and we are establishing a ‘Conservatoire of Ichnologie’ near the theme park in Saint-Lizier. We have already bought buildings offering 1,600m2 of space and now we need to raise the money to refurbish them.” His invention, the prize-winning Georgette (used in several Michelinstarred restaurants, including Hélène Darroze) is a fork and spoon in one implement. It is available online from and profits from sales go towards establishing the Conservatoire – this helps convince banks to invest in the project, rather than have commercial sponsors or funding from the public sector, either of which he fears could lead to interference in the content.

“La Georgette respects the environment because you only need a third of the metal to manufacture it, and it prevents people from using plastic cutlery. I think it also encourages people to get out into nature, go for a walk, have a picnic, go camping.” Getting in touch with nature can be difficult for city-dwellers, who can find themselves divorced from the natural world. “There are two ways
of approaching this,” said Mr Orengo. “It’s not people’s fault, of course. “Cities have to invite nature in, and also should encourage people to study nature in cities. “You can use ichnology in cities,
discovering traces of humans. I think this is very pertinent now.”

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