People often ask if we regularly see very exciting things, such as lions hunting or leopards stalking, and the simple answer is yes! If you are lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the bush, odds are you will witness some amazing things. The truth of the matter is that while big cats, buffalo herds and elephants never lose their thrill, I tend to get excited about the weird and bizarre these days, things which most people don’t expect.
July this year produced the most momentous sighting I have had in a very long time – my first ever wild pangolin!
Oswald was spotting on that particular night drive, and he was even more excited. The two lovely German ladies with us quite rightly didn’t really understand why we were making such a fuss. However I have been involved in wildlife orientated careers in Africa for 18 years, while 42-year-old Oswald has lived in the Luangwa Valley his entire life. Neither of us had ever seen this curious and elusive creature before.
My first experience of pangolins in Zambia came in the late 90’s while living in Livingstone. I was in the offices of the electricity supply company trying to sort out a mistake on my bill, when a senior manager asked if I was interested in buying some live pangolins. I immediately rejected the offer as it would of course have been highly illegal. The next day I reported it to the Livingstone Honorary Wildlife Police officers, who volunteer to support anti-poaching. We tried to set up a sting operation, but when I visited the office with an apparent change of heart, the wily pedler of electricity and illegal animals saw right through my ruse, and it would take another 15 years before I finally laid eyes upon one of the strangest mammals to inhabit the region.
There are several species of pangolin occurring in Africa and Asia. Only one species occurs in Southern Africa, the Cape Pangolin – Smutsia temminkii. It hunts at night and uses it’s powerful claws to dig in the ground and break open rotten logs to access ants and termites, which it feeds on almost exclusively. A sticky coating on the long, probing tongue allows it to harvest an estimated seventy million ants in a year!
It has keratin scales rather than fur and rolls into a ball when threatened, making it a very difficult and frustrating target for predators. Special muscles allow the pangolin to close it’s ears and nostrils to prevent soldiers ants from crawling inside. A fossorial species, it spends it’s time foraging on the ground, or sleeping in underground burrows, rather than in trees as some of it’s arboreal cousins do.
Pangolins are facing a huge threat to their survival everywhere they occur, and the Cape Pangolin is listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It is highly favoured as bushmeat throughout the region and the scales are often used in magical concoctions by traditional healers. It is also feared that there is a new black market trade springing up to provide pangolins to Asian markets, as the supply of their native species dwindles.
On a lighter note, a few weeks after our amazing sighting, a guest caused me great confusion by asking me about what type of penguins we find in the Luangwa. I explained that penguins are oceanic birds and do not occur in the Luangwa at all. She was quite insistent that they did. It was only after she mentioned that Oswald had told her about our thrilling night drive sighting that I realised she’d misunderstood his description of a pangolin! Penguins in the Luangwa? Now that really would be a sighting…