I was a “wet behind the ears” 21 year old ranger when I first walked into the Western Sector of the Sabi Sands private Game Reserve. As in most big 5 reserves, you are required to complete a long, gruelling practical period before you are allowed to take guests out, and in this time some of your formative guiding lessons are learnt. I was fortunate enough to have been able to go out with South Africa’s leading expert in pangolin behaviour and research, Jonathan Swart.At the time Jonathan was the ecologist of the reserve and was completing his PhD in Pangolin Behaviour and Physiology. So, armed with just a headlamp, a side arm, and his trusty tracking equipment, we set off on foot in the middle of the night tracking 5 of his radio collared Pangolin study subjects.It must be one of the most elusive and shy creatures that walk our African Bushveld. Its unique scaly skin and upright walking style make it as interesting to look at as it is mysterious. The Pangolin (Manistemminckii) is a scaly mammal that feeds on ants and termites. It can be compared to other well-known ant eaters around the world, including another unique creature, the Aardvark (Orycteropusafer).However these creatures are as different from each other as we are to Elephants. They are all placed in their own mammal orders, and as such are truly unique. The similarities they do have are: the elongated tongues that they use to eat the same food resource (ants and termites), the fact that they spend their days in underground burrows, and that they are nearly impossible to see.Now, walking at night through one of the most predator-dense reserves in the world is a pretty unique and awakening experience! Hearing all types of sounds that I tried to ignore, we followed the faint radio beeps until it got stronger and stronger. Mouths very dry with anxiety and excitement, we came upon one of the most fascinating creatures I have ever seen and had the privilege to watch: a young male pangolin.
Jonathan had to anaesthetise the animal, so that temperature, heart rates could be measured and so that blood could be taken to perform a hormonal and chemical analysis. In this time, we were helping Jonathan out with all facets of the procedures, and the truly wondrous adaptions of these creatures were seen first-hand. Who knew that the only spot not covered in scales of a pangolin was a small section of pink skin on the belly? This is where the youngsters can suckle, and if threatened, hide when mother rolls into a ball. It is also where the unique muscles and tongue mechanism can be seen.Imagine if your tongue and the muscles controlling it started all the way done by your belly button, and that your tongue could extend a few feet out of your mouth because of this. This is the equivalent of what the pangolins tongue and musculature structure would look like if it were one of our adaptations. After doing all what was required in terms of the research, the Pangolin came to and melted into the shadows, leaving us in awe of the privilege given to us.These retiring creatures are on the bucket list of many a conservationist and wildlife enthusiast, and I wish you all the best of luck in being able to witness these unique animals in their natural surroundings. Happy Pangolining!
Made from keratin, the pangolin’s scales account for about 20% of its weight and grow continuously.
Pangolins often make their homes in abandoned warthog burrows.
Pangolins are found in Africa, India, China and Malasia.
Eating small stones helps the pangolin to digest the contents of its stomach.
When travelling, babies will ride the base of the mother pangolin’s tail.
Pangolins have no teeth.
It has been estimated that pangolins can consume around 70 million insects in a single year!
Thick skin, and ear & nostril cavities that they can close, keep pangolins from getting bitten by the ants they eat.
There are eight different species of pangolin, four African and four Asian. (Two of which, the Chinese and the Sunda Pangolin, are endangered.)
Sadly, pangolins are hunted for their meat and the (untested) ‘medicinal’ properties of their scales, resulting in the mass smuggling and rapid extinction of the animal.