As we head towards winter, our expectations of rain dwindle and we prepare for the cold dry weather. However, this year we have received some uncharacteristically late rain. Of course, we welcome this with open arms as the pans and waterholes fill up, the river flows stronger and the bushveld has one last flush of green that will help carry us through the winter. Something we didn’t quite expect or are actually unsure of whether it is coincidence or correlation, is the number of pangolins we have seen since the rain.
Although extremely rare to see, pangolins are definitely around and we do have the chance to see them but it is a kind of sighting that we stumble across once in a blue moon. In the past few weeks, this has changed drastically. Pangolins are incredibly secretive animals that would often be hidden deep in some vegetation during the day and so when one is found all the rangers and trackers do their best to get their guests across to see it. Pangolins are highly secretive nocturnal animals that roam around in the dead of night in search of any ants and termites to feed on. They will use their long sticky tongue to lap them up off the surface of the ground or extend their tongue down into termite mounds or anthills to fish out any tasty six-legged treats.
Their nocturnal habits are for a number of reasons. Termites and some ant species are most active at night when the heat and UV rays from the sun are not so prevalent. Therefore, if the food is moving around outside the mound at night it makes it easier to find and eat for the pangolins. With the temperatures being cooler at night it makes it less strenuous for the pangolin to cover some distance in search of their food. Lastly, the likelihood of any predators seeing them is lower if they were to use the darkness to slink around.
So why are we seeing so many more pangolins in such a condensed period of time?
The ranging team has a theory, and this is by no means scientifically proven, but rather a hypothesis. The last rain has caused another burst of vegetation growth, little grass shoots extend through the dead decaying brown grass. Termites have a preference to eat the dead grass, leaf litter, and wood over the live plant matter. So the theory goes that, as a means to harvest as much dead plant matter as possible before it decays after the recent rains the termites have become more active. This, in conjunction with the cooler weather (which has often been cloudy), makes the conditions more bearable. So possibly the pangolins are moving around a little more during the day than they normally would, and as the bush has thinned out with the changing of seasons this might make it a little easier to see the pangolins while driving about.
The evidence to support this is that all the pangolins that had been found, were found in the afternoon when it had been relatively cool weather. The pangolins were either already moving around, making it easier to see them or not concealed in the most inconspicuous way if they were trying to hide. On top of this, we have noticed a significant amount of insect activity of late as well, probably meaning that the food source for the pangolins is also abundant.
So little is actually known about pangolins in the wild and the intricacies that make up their daily lives. But we have been fortunate enough to enjoy some great sightings of these highly endangered and extensively trafficked unique animals. Two people that were around to enjoy them were long-time repeat guests, Tony and Marisse Goldman who after coming to Londolozi repeatedly over the last thirteen years had never seen a pangolin and shared their experiences with me.
“At the start of our most recent visit, our Ranger Barry Bath asked what we would like to see on this trip. I mentioned my usual requests, leopards, birds and anything photographic in great light. My wife, Marise, jokingly said she had never seen a pangolin, knowing how tough they were to see we were not really expecting to see one but would love to if there was a chance.
While out on our first game drive, we had a great sighting of two leopards in the rain, and although an amazing sighting it was a challenge to keep my cameras dry. With possible rain forecasted for the next drive, I left my camera with the short lens at camp. The afternoon drive was fairly quiet until just before sunset when one of the Rangers mentioned on the radio that they had found a pangolin. We were at least 30 minutes away and we moved rather quickly to get there.
We had finally managed to see the first pangolin we had ever seen at Londolozi after 14 visits! Pangolin sightings are unique in that you are able to get out of the vehicle in order to have a better view as often they can be tucked under some thick vegetation or rolled up in a ball.
With the sun having already set, it was getting dark quickly and we needed to use a flashlight in order to get a decent view. With me only having my large lens (100-500mm) with me on the vehicle it made it awfully challenging to focus on the pangolin due to our proximity to the animal. Fortunately, Barry had a mirrorless 70-200 lens which would work on my camera that he loaned me and was able to get a few photos and ended the drive on a very high note!
Two days later we could not believe it but another call on the radio came through and another pangolin had been found. This time in a completely different part of the reserve and during the early afternoon. So off we went and got great viewing in great afternoon light and even managed to get a look at its face as this one had unravelled itself and was not curled up in a ball.
Incase that was not enough, a few days later and once again on the afternoon drive another pangolin was found at dusk. Before we knew it we had seen our third pangolin in five days. This one even more comfortable with our presence, as it set about on its daily missions in search of any food. So much so that it paid no attention to us and even bumped into my shoe as I was trying to take a photograph of it.
We had other typical spectacular sightings on this visit but three Pangolins over five days will always define this trip and most likely will not happen in a long time.”
So on the note of the three pangolins that Tony speaks of, Londolozi guide Melvin Sambo and his guest managed to find all three of them. Sometimes luck is just on your side and this time Melvin seemed to have it all. A further two pangolins were found during the course of that week and another one four days later. What was interesting is that the pangolins were all found in the afternoon in completely different locations.
So we can confidently say that they were all different pangolins, some a lot more relaxed and comfortable with our presence whereby they would unravel themselves and with the one that bumped into Tony’s shoe even moving around unperturbed by our presence.
If a pangolin is scared, nervous or threatened it rolls itself up into a ball and uses hard overlapping keratinous scales to protect itself. So simply by seeing them unraveled, we could gauge the pangolin’s comfort with us being around.
We are unsure as to exactly why we are seeing so many, so if you have any suggestions or theories please do let us know in the comments section below.