Walking with Pangolins

Field research was not something I ever imagined myself doing (partly because I didn’t even know it existed as a kid), but boy did it grow on me. The best part of my research at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve is getting to track pangolins every day, and then to share my experiences with as many people as possible. Not only do I wish to let people hear my stories, but I would like all to experience them with me, with as much passion and enthusiasm as I feel when I am out doing what I love. So walk with me, as I walk with pangolins…

Here I will not describe my typical night out with the precious pangolin. Instead, I’d like to share one extraordinary occasion with you; an adventure where the most unexpected events happened. Having followed pangolins for well over a year now, one might think that I should know just about all there is to know about their behaviour, yet they continue to surprise me. Recently, I sat under the starry night sky with respected scientist Dr Alexander Sliwa (the black-footed cat guru, as well as Cologne Zoo curator in Germany), waiting for a pangolin to emerge from its burrow. Dr Sliwa planted a sentence into my mind that has played like a harmonious melody in my thoughts every day since then. He said “I only started to really get to know my species (the black-footed cat) after about a year of studying them”. “Bizarre”, I thought at the time, but now I have learned the truth that lay in those words as I continue to work closely with the elusive pangolin. 

To put the appropriate picture in place for my unusual night, I want you to close your eyes for a second. Place yourself in what you imagine as the Kalahari semi-desert, under a dark sky illuminated by billions of stars, and smudged by the Milky Way. Feel the warm breeze brushing your cheeks, hear the buzzing of the immeasurable insect life, smell the purity of raw red earth. This is my reality every night. In what starts as a typical night, I begin an hour-long journey to reach my destination – the home range of a female pangolin that I have been tracking for little over a year now. I stop my vehicle and scan for the elusive creature using my telemetry set, which allows me to find the pangolins tagged with tracking transmitters.

As it is only 8pm in the middle of summer, I expect to find this female still cooped up in her burrow, where I can sit and wait for her to emerge. To my surprise, the tracking equipment tells me that she is, in actual fact, active. I get a strong signal from a northerly direction, hop back into my vehicle and head that way. I triangulate the signal, park the vehicle next to the road, grab my backpack (stashed with everything I need to follow a pangolin through the night – a flashlight, water bottle, notebook, jumper, and little bags for pangolin poop), and set off on foot into the darkness. 

My heart racing and my hands gripping the telemetry gear, I listen as the signal gets stronger and stronger as I get closer to the pangolin. What a thrill I get knowing that very soon I will lay eyes on one of the world’s rarest animals.

I am close now. I slow my walking pace, remind myself to breathe (I tend to forget to do so because I often breathe so loudly that I cannot hear anything around me), and then stop. GOTCHA! A sound like no other! I turn off the telemetry equipment and listen to the distinctive rustling in the bushes as the scaly creature moves through its environment. Following my ears, my eyes eventually focus on a little figure moving under the moonlight. A grin creeps onto my face as satisfaction fills my heart (which is racing faster at this stage – yes, even after a year, I still get overly-excited when I see the little critter). 

As if that was not enough, the pangolin took the opportunity to feast on a species of ant that I had not previously recorded, and once again I frantically scribble some notes. In all my excitement, I think “what a night!”. It can’t possibly get any better than this. The night starts to settle, as does my heart rate. The pangolin starts heading in the direction of her burrow, pausing every now and then and sniffing around more than usual. As she gets closer to the burrow, she hesitates slightly, and then enters. I stand quietly for a moment, wondering why she might have been acting so strangely. My gut tells me to wait and see if she decides to come out again. Half an hour later, I hear that distinct sound of scales brushing against each other once more. She is coming back out. I give her some time so as to not scare her back into the burrow, and I see the stunning moon glow against her perfectly sculpted scales.I grab my notebook and start scribbling down some notes on the pangolin’s behaviour. Walk, eat, walk, eat, walk, eat - the life of a pangolin. As she becomes more comfortable with my presence, I am able to get closer to her to see exactly what it is that she is eating. Ants – she LOVES ants! Could you imagine your body being run only on the energy provided by tiny ants and termites? As I walk alongside this peculiar creature, pointing pen to paper, I shake my head in disbelief. How did I get so lucky? I get to WALK WITH PANGOLINS every day. I breathe a sigh of appreciation and continue. Suddenly I am stopped in my tracks by a sound unfamiliar to my ears. “Is that a jackal lapping water?” I ask myself, confused. But I can tell that the sound is coming from the pangolin and so I edge closer to investigate. To my utter surprise, it is indeed the pangolin drinking water. The recent rains had deposited water into pockets at the bases of some black thorn bushes, and this pangolin took the opportunity to lap some of it up, something I had NEVER seen before.

I did not anticipate what happens next. That beautiful moon not only illuminates one body, but TWO! A tiny figure rises from behind mom, who has decided it is time to move house. I look around me multiple times to see if there is someone who can share this experience with me (I do sometimes have human company at night). To my disappointment, nobody is there. I bounce up and down like a child that is about to open a Christmas gift, flick my fingers and hold my hand over my mouth to stop myself from letting out a squeak. Is this REALLY happening? Am I REALLY watching mom bring baby out of the burrow? I pull myself together and scribble notes once more. Mom is as gentle as any other; she waits for baby to climb on board (yip, pangolin mothers carry the baby on the back!), and walks off. Nothing could wipe the smile off my face now. Walking side by side with TWO pangolins. Mom is perfectly comfortable having me around, and does not pause for a single moment to investigate my presence. For the next hour-and-a-half, I follow the two as they head due west. Mom does not stop to forage on this journey. She occasionally stops to allow her fallen passenger to climb back on board, but other than that, she has her mind on a new home and nothing distracts her as she moves along.

Eventually I decide that I should let the two go on peacefully, without me stomping around after them. I take a step back, inhale deeply, and watch this enigmatic duo disappear into the darkness. I look up to the sky, relax my shoulders as I exhale, and release a tiny giggle. “THAT WAS AWESOME!” I exclaim. Walking back to my vehicle, I find a new burning passion in my heart. As if I didn’t feel excited enough about the work I do already, this experience just magnified that passion ten-fold. I look forward to spending the next year continuing with my research, being endlessly surprised, doing what I love most… walking with pangolins.

Email:  wpanaino@gmail.com

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