During winter there is no doubt that the possibility of seeing pangolin increases. With the thinning of the long grass as the wet rainy summer rains begin to abate, you cannot help but become more hopeful that you might come across one of these incredible animals. However, don’t hold your breath.
One afternoon when driving through the open grasslands in search of a leopard. We decided to have a look a little closer to the Maxabeni River and thicker riverine vegetation. Tracker Lucky Shabangu thought it would be good for us to take a road that we do not drive all too often. Having just turned back to my guests to say that it was an interesting route choice and who knows what we might find on our drive.
Suddenly, Lucky was banging excitedly on the bonnet for me to stop. His eyes were wide and with the biggest smile on his face, he exclaimed “porcupine…” in sheer delight! We reversed back hurriedly, as seeing a porcupine during the day was a rare sighting and it would most likely scuttle off at any disturbance if it hadn’t already. But then, only metres from the road was an extraordinary sight. Not a porcupine but an impressively large pangolin glistening in the golden afternoon light. To say we were excited is a vast understatement. The biggest pangolin Lucky and I have ever seen.
As I turned to my guests, I realised that this animal that lay before our eyes was something they had never even heard of. Due to the rarity of seeing a pangolin on safari, it isn’t something that comes up first on a list of animals to see – so what is so significant about seeing this animal?
Pangolins are incredibly rare to see due to their solitary, nocturnal, secretive, and elusive nature. They are exceptionally well camouflaged during the day as their auburn scales with a golden border, blend into the colour of the grass. Pangolins will also seek refuge in burrows into termite mounds as they wait for the sun to set. The fact that we managed to find this pangolin during daylight hours was something out of the ordinary as we were able to observe the complexity of its scales.
What is a Pangolin?
A pangolin is a unique mammal as it is the only mammal that is entirely covered by scales. This is a specialised adaptation that acts as a protective layer to fend off any predators. The scales are made of keratin – much like our fingernails. The pangolin we see in Southern Africa is the Temminck’s Ground Pangolin and is one of 8 species of pangolin in the world. Pangolins are only found in Africa and Asia (4 different species on each continent). When pangolins feel threatened, they curl up into a tight ball and their overlapping scales act together creating armour. If the physical defence is not enough they are able to expel a foul secretion to deter the predator.
Due to their nocturnal and solitary behaviour, there is a fairly large knowledge gap, and very little is know about them which further adds to the significance of seeing one in the wild. Interestingly, pangolins and leopards share some similarities in their territorial behaviours. In both animals, males and females have territories that they defend against members of the same sex, and will overlap with members of the opposite sex where they will only associate with each other for mating purposes. Much like leopards, who very rarely come across each other, they use scent marking as communication. When the female is in oestrus, the male will detect this in her scent and will pursue her in order to mate. After mating is completed the male has no parental responsibilities and the female will raise her single pup on her own.
A pangolin’s diet consists solely of ants and termites. A long sticky specialised tongue that can extend the length of their body out is used to probe about deep in the mounds of the ants and termites in order to fish them out.
So it’s not that pangolins aren’t found at Londolozi, rather it is just that we don’t see them often. They are difficult to track and we have very few signs of them. Therefore seeing pangolin is purely timing with a bit of luck. While driving, seeing them as they cross the road or near the roadside is your best bet. These incredible creatures are sadly under threat and are endangered worldwide. They are the most trafficked animals in the world. Much like the keratin horn of a rhino, the keratin scales are trafficked for traditional purposes which results in these elusive mammals slowly becoming more endangered and closer to extinction. A sad reality and one can only hope that through safe havens such as the Sabi Sand Wildtuin, that these populations are protected for generations to come.
After we left the pangolin and stopped to all share a moment of what we had witnessed, Lucky told his story about the significance of pangolins in his culture. He said,
“In my culture a pangolin is a very special animal. You see these animals must not be poached or killed. We believe that if you kill a pangolin and the blood of the pangolin hits the ground it means there will be no rain for the whole year. So we do not hunt these animals, as no rain for a year is not good for the farmlands and for the cows and sheep so we must protect them.”
Six ‘interesting facts’ about these scaly creatures:
- A baby pangolin is called a pup. When they are born, pangolin pups are completely helpless and survive by clinging onto the backs of their mothers as they move around the territory seeking food.
- Pangolins have no teeth – they ingest sand and grit, which with a strong muscular stomach lined with keratinised spine-like protrusions, which helps break down the ants and termites before it is digested.
- Pangolins weigh up to 12kg as an adult and approximately 20% of this weight is their scales.
- Pangolins can close their ears and nostrils to keep insects out when they are foraging for food.
- Pangolins walk on their hind legs.
- A single pangolin can eat up to 70 million ants a year.
I will never forget the feeling of seeing my first pangolin. It sounds somewhat clichéd, but it truly was a captivating and memorable experience. It is hard to explain why this was such a significant and special moment and how overwhelmed I was with that sighting. as we are privileged to experience many wonderful sightings at Londolozi but I hope that some of you will also have the privilege of seeing these incredible creatures and experience that feeling that comes with seeing something so rare and special!