The Elusive Pangolin

Pangolins are very often at the top every safari enthusiast’s wish list. As well as being one of the most sought after species to catch a glimpse of, this incredibly rare animal is also one of Africa’s most difficult to find.

There are eight species of the instantly recognisable pangolin throughout Asia and Africa – four of which can be found on each continent. In southern and east Africa, however, we have only the ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii), also known as Temminck’s or Cape pangolin.

Nocturnal by nature, and usually living in sandy soil habitats close to water, pangolins are insectivores and leave their burrows at night to forage for termites and ants. Using their extended claws to dig insects from their mounds, pangolins have an incredibly long narrow tongue – known to be up to 40 cm in some cases, or longer than the length of their entire body – which they use to catch their pray. A mucus produced by their saliva glands creates a sticky surface on the tongue which traps the insects before being swiftly retracted and the insects devoured.

To protect themselves against predators such as lions, leopards and hyenas, pangolins have the ability to roll themselves into a tight ball and omit a foul smelling acid. Their overlapping scales (weighing 20% of their entire body weight) act as armour and each individual scale can move in such a way that they are able to cut and seriously wound anything that is caught between them. The pangolins biggest predators are, however, very sadly humans.

There is a belief in certain Asian countries that pangolin scales contain medicinal qualities and are able to cure a wide range of serious ills. The 900+ scales that cover a pangolins body are in actual fact made mostly of keratin, the same type of non-medicinal protective protein that makes up rhino horn and our finger nails. This, combined with their meat being considered a delicacy, has driven the demand for pangolins so high that it has led to them becoming the most trafficked mammal in the world. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species states that all are suffering from decreasing populations – the Asian species are classified as either critically endangered or endangered, whilst in Africa they are listed as vulnerable. With the Asian species becoming fewer, traffickers are turning to African pangolins to trade on the black market.

Your best chance of seeing one of these magnificent creatures on your African safari? Firstly you must pack your patience as they are extremely difficult to predict! To catch sight of a pangolin really will be down to a considerable amount of luck and being in the right place at the right time. Although it is not unheard of for sightings during daylight, witnessing them emerge at twilight is more likely and being active at night, your chances of observing them during this time are greatly increased.

The Tswalu Kalahari Reserve in South Africa’s northern Cape offers some of the best opportunities to see the elusive pangolin. Tswalu work closely with the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG), aiding with research and conservation. The Erindi Private Game Reserve in Namibia is another possible option and one which offers dedicated pangolin tracking activities. Other more general regions worth considering may be Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia or Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve – but ultimately, even in these areas, luck must be on your side!

For more information about pangolin, or other species specific destinations, please do get in touch with our team on +44 (0) 1787 888 590 or email us via our contact page.

Photo credits: John Bassindale, Tswalu Kalahari Reserve and John Adendorff.