It’s not often one gets the opportunity to turn one’s back on a pride of lions in favour of something far more exciting, but that’s exactly what happened last week when the Sparta Pride were found harassing a young rhino calf in the central areas of Londolozi.
Rich Ferrier and Lucky Shabangu were following the pride’s tracks while Tom Imrie was checking a road nearby. Tom rounded a corner and suddenly came face to face with the lions, just as the young males of the pride made a couple of dashes at the calf, probably as part of mere experimentation and mischievousness instead of a real attempt to take the calf down, as its mother was next to it, trying to put up some sort of defence against the marauding lions.
We arrived on the scene just as the rhinos were moving off into the bushes and the lions were regrouping and looking to settle down for the day. Rich Ferrier meanwhile had come in from the west, and his excited voice immediately came over the radio, “Tom, James, come to my position!” Tom and I began driving towards him, slightly confused, as his vehicle was facing away from the lions. His next announcement revealed all, “There’s a Pangolin here!”
Back in November of last year, I felt like I could retire happy, as I had finally seen my first Pangolin. I never expected to see another, let alone within a year of seeing the first. Now suddenly there was one out in the open, with a pride of lions moving around within 30 metres of it.
When we got to where Rich was parked, the Pangolin was curled up in a tight ball, their standard defence against predators. Their thick plates (reptiles have scales, mammals have plates), as hard as rock, are enough to blunt even the sharpest of canines, and render them almost immune from predator attack. The most likely scenario in this case was that the lions had stumbled upon the Pangolin just before dawn as it made its way back to its burrow, and it had immediately curled up on itself. Fortunately for us, Rich and Lucky had spotted it as it lay in the grass.
The lions had clearly lost interest in the poor creature and they began settling down to sleep in the shade. We meanwhile, watched the Pangolin, waiting and hoping that it would uncurl and begin to move. The only other time I saw one, it was lying with its face in a thicket and didn’t move, so I was hoping that this one would be an upgrade. It didn’t disappoint, as within a few minutes it had tentatively uncurled itself and begun moving towards a nearby thicket. It remained there unmoving for awhile, so we decided to leave it in peace.
Being the incredibly rare thing that it is, we took some of the camp staff out in the hope of seeing it a couple of hours later. Our hope was that with the lions nearby it wouldn’t risk moving off entirely for fear of another attack, but when we arrived at where we had left it, it had gone, and so had the lions.
I’m happy that I’ve seen a Pangolin. Even happier that I’ve now seen two. But a small part of me, just a very small part, is almost sad that I have. Once you see something like this creature for the first time, it loses some of it’s mystery. Discovering that unicorns actually exist would make them less appealing in many ways.
I was surprised at myself on this day; when the camp staff that came out didn’t get to see the pangolin, I was almost jealous. For them, the mystery of this amazing creature is still very much alive. There is still very much a pot of gold at the end of their rainbow.
As for me, I’ve seen my Pangolin. I’ve spent my gold…
Written, Filmed and Photographed by James Tyrrell