“The Night of the Pangolin”

Undoubtedly, the highlight of most guests’ safari in Africa, is the sight of a wild African lion on the hunt, or a herd of elephants moving majestically across the plains. These are the truly evocative African images that we all fall asleep thinking about. They shape our dreams of that first, or indeed next, safari in Africa. The popularisation of wildlife documentaries the world over has allowed people to witness, intimately, some of these majestic scenes and in doing so romanticises the view of a safari holiday in Africa. For me and my guiding colleagues on Nyumbani, the same holds true, but we dream also of sightings, of the rarest nocturnal animals, the one’s we know we have little chance of ever seeing. The joy of being able to share such a special sighting with your guests is immeasurable. But this is a story not so much of never giving up … but of never saying never!! You truly just do not know what will be around the next corner.

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For me, my nemesis has always been getting my first sighting of the elusive nocturnal Pangolin (Manis temminckii). So elusive has been my search for this animal over the past 20 years, that I began to believe it only existed in the place where unicorns live. My hopes and dreams were only kept alive by the very rare occurrence when a ranger colleague of mine, often on the way home from a boozy braii in the bush, stumbled across one in his path. Their descriptions of the elation they had in seeing this animal only served to ignite jealousy in me, and furthered my desire to find one myself on day. There are only 4 species of pangolin (also known as scaly anteaters) living on the African continent. Southern Africa, has only the one species which is ground dwelling, lives in burrows and forages only at night for ants and termites.

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The pangolin has no teeth, just a long 25cm sticky tongue to collect their prey after they have dug them from the ground with their strong sharp claws. What is peculiar for a mammal, is the fact that they don’t have loose hair covering their body, but have scales made from keratin which provide them with an armour plating which makes them look like reptiles in appearance. This tough exterior provides a unique protection for the pangolin as when under threat, it merely rolls itself into a tight ball to protect it’s softer undersides. When it is mobile, it often walks on it’s knuckles or its back legs, using it’s long tail for balance, thereby preventing wear and tear on those critical digging claws. Sadly, it biggest threat comes from man. Firstly they are poached extensively for their scales which are used in far eastern medicines. The South African population has been decimated as a result. Where they have not been poached, they have fallen victim to the electric fencing that surrounds game reserves as they attempt to burrow outside the confines of the reserves. A few months ago I was guiding a young couple on safari, on the anniversary of their wedding a year ago to the date. An amazing Brazilian couple who had already fallen in love with Africa within just a few days of arriving. I had been photographing 2 male cheetah earlier that day and I thought it would be a very special privilege to be able to share the experience of walking with these special creatures with this devoted couple. The smiles on their faces were reward enough for any guide and we left these special animals to enjoy our sunset over the Drakensburg with a vintage champagne to toast their continued happiness and a long life full of adventures. Long after dark, as we neared the lodge and a welcome return home for dinner, the radio crackled into life and it was my good friend Pierre, who was also guiding clients that evening on the reserve. The news that he had found me that elusive pangolin had my heart racing. But what of my guests? Had they even heard of a pangolin before? How did I convince them to turn around from the warmth of the lodge fireplace and head back out for a 30 minute drive south to check out this creature? I need not have worried. As soon as I told of my story, of my 20 year odyssey to see this elusive animal, they wanted to share the adventure. As we drove up to the sighting, Pierre’s vehicle was backlighting the creature which lay stationary, curled up tightly in the middle of the track. It gave the whole experience and unearthly appearance. Something quite extra-terrestrial in a way. My quest was over. I had my first pangolin sighting and I got to share it with people from the other side of the world who left me the next day with a vision of the beauty of Africa that went way beyond seeing a lion or an elephant. I heard them the next morning regaling their pangolin story to their fellow guests with as much excitement as I had done the night before when I retuned to the lodge.

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Chris Martin … elated with his first Pangolin!!

So when you join me and my team for your safari at Nyumbani Estate, remember this story. Every bend in the road holds the possibility of the greatest of surprises; you can never relax and let down your guard; never get too complacent … because just as you do, just as you think that Mama Africa hides away her greatest secrets, she lets you into her most intimate nocturnal domain and leaves you with a memory that goes beyond priceless!!

5 thoughts on ““The Night of the Pangolin”

  1. When I lived in the then Gazankulu in 1978 I was lucky enough to see a big pangolin in the gravel road near the mine where we were living as my ex-husband and I were driving back from a trip to Tzaneen to Fumani Mine 40km from Giyani. I have photos of it taken with one of the old type cameras in the middle of the night, so I know how you felt when you saw one and I never ever saw another either, so it was very special.

    Liked by 1 person

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