My last evening game drive after an adventurous week at Londolozi, and as usual I was feeling all the excitement and anticipation that comes with an immersive experience into wild spaces. I’d had more jaw dropping moments than I felt I had any right to, from the symphony that is a pride of lions roaring together, to a full bellied leopard walking right by me, and then the stunning sight of a mama lioness and her three brand new cubs making a playful appearance at sunrise. How could you top that?
I had climbed into the rover as my Ranger Mrisho Lugenge, and Tracker Tshepo Dzemba, asked if there was anything in particular we wanted to see. As often happens when you spend many hours sharing beautiful and emotional experiences like you do at Londolozi, you get to know each other well. Our group had been joking and laughing together on several drives now, and we all tried to think of the most outlandish request for animal sightings. I simply decided that I wanted to see the lions at sunset one last time. I could not imagine anything that could top all of the experiences I’d had already.
So we had set out to find lions, picking up a few fresh tracks here and there and gradually narrowing down the area where lions had crossed on and off the reserve. After a little while, stopping to watch giraffe and rhino and buffalo, we had honed in on an area where we thought the lions might be, and continued to view a lot of general game whilst still closing in on the lion tracks.
Then, while moving at a decent clip along a road, Tshepo suddenly points to the right and says, “Lions”. We all look to the right as the Rover slows, but we can see nothing. After a bit of coaching from Mrisho and Tshepo, in the distance we all spy the upturned paws of a lion laying prone in the grass. How Tshepo saw that between the bushes as we drove along the road I will never know!
Approaching the pride we found several lions all in various poses of contented relaxation. We stayed for a few moments but it was quite obvious that these lions were not going to move any time soon. They were all in a state of extreme satiated slumber, sprawled out on the ground, bellies up and snoring. Mrisho thought about it, and suggested we investigate a lead on a leopard sighting that was about a ten minute drive away, and perhaps come back to the lions later if we had time, who by then might be thirsty enough to make their way to the nearby waterhole.
No sooner had we pulled away from the lions than the call came over the radio that the leopard has disappeared into thick brush, so Mrisho and Tshepo make an executive call to take a break and stretch our legs as the sun sets, then return to the lions for a last call of the day before the sun goes down. After our short break, everyone climbs back into the Rover and we drive the short distance toward the lions. As we approach I saw Mrisho and Tshepo rise slightly in their seats and a stunned look pass between them. Mrisho stumbles through an explanation, “I don’t believe it, she’s got a pangolin in her mouth!”
All of us are at attention now! If you had asked me to think of the most outlandish request for an animal sighting I could think of, I still would not have said the pangolin because I would never believe such a thing to be possible. A pangolin—this critically endangered nocturnal animal that may become extinct in my lifetime. No one gets to see a pangolin! We approach the lions carefully, and in fading light the lot of us sit in stunned silence, watching a lion try to eat a pangolin. Curled into a tight little ball, the pangolin has deployed its best defensive resistance, and the lion’s teeth are finding no purchase in the tight scales of its would-be second dinner.
Frustrated, the lion licks and licks the pangolin, but he stays tightly wound. She picks it up and moves it, and then joined by another of the pride, the two of them take turns poking and licking and trying to bite into the poor little creature, who has probably resigned himself to a few hours of tightly curled patience.
The sun disappears and we hear the unmistakable approach of grazing elephants. The lions eventually seem to give up and leave the pangolin alone. None of us want to leave. We all want to know the fate of the pangolin, also knowing that it is highly unlikely that we will ever see one again. It is in these moments where not interfering in nature can feel so intensely difficult, but we do what we must and turn toward camp, still in shock from what we’ve all just witnessed. Later, we all excitedly bound back into camp with the incredible story and our shakily snapped photos, eager to share what a rare encounter we’ve just experienced.
The next morning we take a quick trip past the site again. There were no lions, and no pangolin scales. We are hopeful that the little guy kept his patience, and disappeared into the night when the lions weren’t looking.
Live on, little pangolin.