To spot a pangolin in the wild once in your life would be considered lucky. To go on safari and tick off the Big Five, the Little Five, the Ugly Five, your Personal Five, and maybe an extra five of something, is fantastic! But no one really puts a pangolin on any of those lists because no one likes disappointment.
Shy, nocturnal, camouflaged, and endangered, the pangolin is not an easy spot. Ground-dwelling pangolins burrow in holes that they dig three metres into the earth. They are insectivores, using a very long tongue to access deep crevices of ant hills and termite mounds. During the day they are most often asleep, curled into a tight ball of hard scales, which protects their tender underbellies.
In the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, guests at Africa on Foot and nThambo Tree Camp have been very fortunate in the last few weeks. There have been two separate sightings of the elusive pangolin; occasions that even the rangers at the camps were thrilled to be a part of. For many people, it was the first look at this prehistoric-looking creature, and for many people it might be the last.
Unfortunately, the uniqueness of the pangolin renders it ‘exotic’ and it is consequently one of the highest poached animals. Pangolin scales have zero medicinal value, yet they are sought after in a powdered form as aides to breastfeeding mothers in China. Their flesh is prized as exotic meat, and although trade is illegal, pangolins are poached in gruesome numbers in order to feed this demand.
Only last year a Chinese ship was intercepted in the Philippines and was found to be carrying ten tonnes of frozen, descaled pangolins. In 2010, a Philippine vessel was caught with just under ten tonnes of meat and scales in China. The horror continues, and with all eight species of pangolin threatened with extinction, this small scaly mammal is considered the most illegally traded mammal in the world.
I considered myself very unlucky (in fact I think I actually sulked) when I skipped a game drive in the Klaserie a few weeks ago and ended up missing my one and only chance to see a pangolin, alive and well, in its natural home in the Klaserie. I made peace with this, until two weeks later when I heard that new guests at Africa on Foot had come across a pangolin at night.
I guess I’d better pack my bags and go and work from the bush for a while, because clearly there’s something in the water in the Klaserie…
Watch Kevin MacLaughlin’s video of their second pangolin sighting below.