When heading out on a game drive, guests often ask which animals we are going to look for. But in the bush, one never knows what exactly could be lying around the next corner – which of course is what makes the experience much more exciting! Most guests, and rangers alike, always hope to see a variety of general game and a few of the big guys like lions or elephants. However, it is every ranger’s secret desire to spot some rare, magical and mind blowing sightings. This was the case on one of my recent evening game drives when my guests and I came across one of Africa’s rarest animals, a pangolin.
A pangolin is a mammal that has a body covered with horny overlapping scales made of keratin, and a small head with an elongated snout. The name “pangolin” comes from the Malay word pengguling, meaning “one who rolls up”. These mammals are nocturnal and tend to be solitary, and only meet when it’s time to mate. The result is usually a litter of one to three offspring, which is raised for about two years. Mother pangolins keep their young in burrows until they are old enough to ride on her tail. The mother curls up snugly around the offspring at night or if she senses danger.
Pangolins have large, curved claws that they use for excavating and and termite nests, as well as for pulling bark off trees and logs to find their insect prey.
Pangolins feed on termites and ants, which they capture using their long, thick and sticky tongue (they have no teeth). In fact, the pangolin’s tongue is longer than its head and body when extended. Large pangolins can extend their tongues by as much as 40 cm with a diameter of only 0.5 cm.
To protect themselves from ant attacks, pangolins can voluntarily constrict their ears and nostrils. When threatened, they curl up into a tight ball and may also emit a noxious acid from glands near the anus. These beautiful animals unfortunately face threats not just from predators, but humans too. They are among the most illegally trafficked species and are often hunted for meat, for use in traditional medicine and as fashion accessories.
This unusual sighting was an absolute treat for guests and rangers alike and we hope to see more pangolins in the future.