For those who may not know, seeing a pangolin in the wild is an incredibly rare occurrence. One that many guests who return on safari regularly can go without seeing for most, if not their whole lives! And so to see not one, but TWO pangolins together was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event.
What is a Pangolin and why is it so special to see one?
First things first, it’s important to clarify that there are eight species of pangolins on Earth, four of which occur in Africa and the other four in Asia. The species we see at Londolozi is the Temminck’s ground pangolin. For a more detailed description of the species, read Nick’s article that he wrote in celebration of world pangolin day. Being covered head-to-toe in scales, pangolins are one of the most unique animals out there. These scales are made up of keratin (the same substance that our hair and nails are made from) and make for a very effective form of protection against predators.
Pangolins are reclusive by nature and are generally only active during the cover of darkness when they will scurry around in search of ants and termites. Because of this and their low population density, we can go months without seeing one.
So, what happened?
Now that you have an idea of what pangolins are and the significance of seeing one, you can imagine our excitement upon finding two individuals in the same spot!
We had set out for our morning game drive nice and early and our plan was to try and find the Ntsevu Pride of lions. After about one hour of driving with no sign of the lions, tracker Trevor gasped with excitement and pointed down to the left-hand side of the road ahead of him. “Lions!” I exclaimed to the guests on the back of the vehicle, only shortly to be corrected by Trevor who said,
“No! Pangolins! Two of them!”
And there they were. After seeing that the animals were fairly relaxed and out in the open, Trevor and I got our three guests out of the vehicle slowly to get a closer view and photograph them.
After catching my breath the obvious question sprung to mind;
“Why would these two pangolins be together?”
There is still a fair amount that is unknown about Pangolins and if I’m being completely honest my knowledge of their social structure was limited at the time. I did however remember learning that they are solitary animals and their territorial behaviour is somewhat similar to that of leopards; with individuals not tolerating an adult of the same sex in their territory. The only time there will be two individuals together would be if it was a mother and her pup, two individuals fighting over territory, or a pair mating.
It could only have been a mating pair. Why?
It is difficult to see from the photographs, but the pangolin underneath was slightly smaller than the one on top. After doing some reading I learnt that males can weigh up to 40% more than females.This individual underneath was too big to be a pup and either way, if it was a mother and pup, the mother (larger in size relative to the pup…) would be underneath. Pangolin pups are carried on their mother’s backs, not the other way around.
The alternative suggestion was that they could have been two individuals of the same sex fighting over territory. This has been observed (on very few occasions) in the wild, mostly with males aggressively attacking intruders by wrestling with their tails and scratching the other male with forelimbs and claws. Judging by how the pangolins were positioned together, and the tracks on the road leading up to where they were, this clearly wasn’t the case – all the clues lead to them actually mating.
So how do pangolins mate?
After approaching the female cautiously, the male will mount the female from the side and attempt to force his tail below hers in order to try and align their genitals. He will then curl around her tail to avoid being dislodged. The female then carries him in this position to her burrow where they will remain for 24-48 hours.
After a period of 105-140 days, a single pangolin pup is born and will remain with the mother for 3-6 months. At this age they are still significantly smaller than an adult – more reason to conclude that our sighting wasn’t a mother and pup.
We will be sure to keep a careful lookout in this area in the next few months and hopefully, if our luck continues, we will see the ‘pangopup!’ The product of a once-in-a-lifetime sighting!