Today is World Pangolin day and so I thought I would share with you a little bit about my search for this amazing little creature.
Pangolin are the world’s most illegally traded animal. The Asian market uses the scales for jewellery and medicines (most likely for impotence) and drain foetal blood for an elixir to reduce blood pressure. This wonderfully funny looking creature is now critically endangered.
The Pangolin is the only mammal covered in scales (made from the same material found in a rhino’s horn), it can live on the ground or in trees, it eats up to 70 million insects a year and its tongue can be longer than its body. In 2012 Sir David Attenborough chose the Pangolin as one of his ten favourite species he would save from extinction.
I first became intrigued about Pangolin when I was asking a Zimbabwean local about black magic. He told me a story of a worker at a cotton mill near Harare in Zimbabwe who had found a Pangolin in the bush. The worker didn’t know what the bizarre creature was; describing it as a lizard that walked on its hind legs that had fish like scales. So he killed it.
African tribal beliefs are that the Pangolin is a mythical creature. This belief may partly lie in the fact that Pangolins are attracted to eat shiny objects and as such, years ago, when you killed a pangolin and cut open its stomach it sometimes contained diamonds.
The worker in this story showed the Pangolin to his co-workers who explained what it was and that it was very bad luck to kill a Pangolin because it held magical powers. Because the Pangolin was already dead the workers ate the animal. That day the cotton mill they were working at stopped. Without warning and without explanation.
The German owners of the mill called for their technicians to source the problem but no problem could be found. They engaged electricians from Harare who also could find no problem with the equipment. They had no choice but to call on their German headquarters to fly down experts in the machinery mechanics but they too could find no trace of a problem with the mill. It was a mystery that the mill could be in perfect working order but simply would not turn on.
Eventually word got round the crew of the worker who killed the Pangolin. Some of the men went to the site manager and explained that the killing of the Pangolin had caused the machinery to stop working. The German managers at first dismissed this information but as the days grew to weeks they became increasingly desperate for a solution.
The workers finally convinced them to call in the local tribal chief who suggested if the bosses promise not to punish the worker for his mistake in killing the pangolin, and for a moderate fee of course, he would be able to fix the situation. The German managers reluctantly agreed to payment on result and the chief called in the local witch doctor.
The witch doctor performed a ritual and when he was finished the chief sent the managers back to the mill. The machinery began to work immediately.
I have been searching for a Pangolin in the wild for over a decade throughout Africa and Asia since hearing that story and last year I got my best chance yet to finally see one.
My friends and I were staying at Erindi Reserve in Namibia. It was my first time back in Africa since I finished working as an overland tour guide many years ago. The first few days we had been on morning and evening game drives and by night we braii over a fire twenty metres from a waterhole where we were visited by Hippo, Crocodile, Oryx, Springbok, Impala, Blue Wildebeest, Red Hardtebeest, Elephant, Kudu, Giraffe and Zebra. Not bad viewing over our boerewors.
However this day we were to join our guide PJ to monitor a male Pangolin on the other side of the Reserve. We started out through the savannah of Erindi following a weak signal from the tagged Pangolin’s transmitter. PJ uses the transmitters to gather information about the Pangolin to help ensure their survival in the wild.
Early into the drive we encountered an Aardwolf with her cub. Aardwolves are shy nocturnal insectivorous mammals. It is extremely rare to see one at all, especially in the middle of the morning. Two Aardwolf cubs peek from the hole in their midden and curiously glance at us before darting away and returning. We unfortunately must interrupt this beautiful moment, we have a more pressing engagement with the Pangolin.
We continue through the scrub when we spot a Lion pride of nine. PJ identifies this pride as one led by Etosha, a strong and aggressive matriarch. Always a blessing, we must give appropriate time to appreciate the majesty of this animal. As we sat transfixed to the scene metres in front of us, two new males approach the pride.
PJ turns to me with an excited look.
“Takeover?” I ask. He nods back with a grin. This was truly a rare experience and one that sent thrills through our group. Traditionally the approaching males will kill all the cubs, bringing the lionesses in oestrus so they can start to build their own pride.
We watched on for hours as the lions tactically positioned themselves and attacked. However, after an aggressive and violent start, Etosha was too powerful and the males submitted, leaving her pride in tact. We still had a long way to go and had burned valuable Pangolin time. A detour that no one regretted.
One more stop to fearfully admire a three metre Black Mamba that crossed the path of the vehicle. I am told if a Black mamba bites you it is best to find a shady tree and lie down beneath it… dead bodies don’t smell as much in the shade. We watched on and followed slowly alongside the snake that seemed unphased by our presence. The Pangolin signal was strong, we weren’t far, so we said goodbye to the terrifying Mamba, all hoping we would never see one this close again.
Eventually we made it to where the transmitter was sending its signal but it appeared the Pangolin had already gone underground. We found fresh spoor as we walked around an Aardvark hole. We could smell the Pangolin, on musk, deep in the hole but he wasn’t coming out to meet us this day.
On the way home we found another pride of five lions. This one PJ said was led by Shadow. A 230kg male who terrifyingly got his name from his habit of following people home. We again sat transfixed to the pride before the declining sun cast a caramel hue across the savannah and beckoned us home. Diligently watching we didn’t have Shadow on our tail.
We eventually got back to our camp after an exciting day in the Reserve. Once again the Pangolin had eluded me.
Bizarrely, I kind of like that though. I love that nature isn’t on demand. Many years I have spent roaming the wild, looking for the Pangolin. Each trek leading me through breathtaking scenery and chance encounters with wildlife. It occurs to me, the experiences I have had in search of the Pangolin have contained some of the most deeply enriching and exciting moments.
I hope I see a Pangolin one day. Regardless of whether I am lucky enough to spot one though, given my encounters on the way, searching for this magical creature may bring some of the most rewarding times of my life.