The rains arrived too late for some of the animals. The drought had done its damage. As we started exploring the reserve, we quickly learned that the days of “seven aardvark sightings a day” were gone. We were told that by 2020 many of the aardvarks were emaciated and unhealthy… and by 2021 weren’t being seen any more. Nobody was finding pangolin tracks, except for those of the three animals that had been found and radio-tagged by researchers.
So we arrived to a combination of bad spotting conditions, and fewer subjects to spot. We had our work cut out for us.
Naturally, I was initially frustrated by the experience. This was not the reserve I had been waiting years to visit. But there were still desert treasures to be found. We landed our first sightings of Cape fox and springhare. And we finally encountered my first aardwolf one evening (obscured by tall grass, of course), and later saw an aardvark and an aardwolf in quick succession during a night drive. But what was it going to take to find a pangolin?
A bit of science, as it turns out. As documented in a recent National Geographic article, Tswalu is the center of some important wildlife research, including a project headed up by Dr. Wendy Panaino and Valery Phakoago that is tracking the effects of climate change on desert species. Pangolins are the centerpiece of this research, and the biologists were tracking a few of them with the use of radio transmitters. We were allowed to borrow radio tracking equipment to see if we could find them. But did that mean it was going to be easy? Hardly!
The search started in the late afternoon. We’d drive to the general area of this massive reserve where a particular pangolin had been tracked (in the past days or perhaps a week… folks aren’t out looking for them every single day). Positioning ourselves on the crest of a sand dune, we’d try to locate a signal from the radio transmitter.
Even after we found the approximate area where we knew a pangolin was sleeping the day away, we still had to locate its burrow. There are a lot of holes to choose from! This is where more traditional tracking skills took over. Our tracker Siphiwe Mandleni and lead guide Barry Peiser took to the ground and began exploring on foot. They were looking for signs of fresher digging (the reddest sand in a mound) and tracks outside a den hole. Once they found a likely candidate, they re-checked the radio signal, which would help determine if the tagged animal was inside the den.
Sometimes, you can get lucky with timing. On our second day of pangolin searching, we located the burrow before sunset… and the pangolin came out before dark. It even walked right in our direction!
Luckily we had searched for pangolin the night before, and had much better luck. Tracking the radio signal took some time, and we stopped on several dunes. Eventually, we just had to wait things out as the sun began to set. Darkness descended and Venus appeared above the glowing horizon.
With trackers on the ground, we waited for the call. Finally, we got the signal, and it was time to gather our gear and trek through the dense grass and soft sands of the Kalahari. A spotlight flashed at us in the distance. That’s where Siphiwe was, hopefully with a pangolin. That is, hopefully with a pangolin that was not spending all its time in long grass. It would be nice to get a clear photo, after all.
After trudging a few hundred meters, we caught up to our tracker. The pangolin was out, but it took a while before we finally saw the shiny scales glowing amidst the grass. Though I’d seen pictures and video before, it was still smaller than I expected (contrast that with the aardvark, which was larger than I expected when I first saw it five years earlier). It’s amazing that anyone can spot pangolins during the day if there’s even a modicum of vegetation sprouting out of the ground!
Now the challenge was trying to get clear views amidst all the grass, with only a spotlight to help illuminate it enough for photos. It took some time. Between the two of us, Jenn and I managed to come away with a few photos that seem downright miraculous given the conditions. Since the pangolin was facing away from the spotlight early on, I focused—bad choice of words, as focusing was quite challenging in the dark—on capturing some silhouettes. This at least shows off how this amazing creature actually commutes only on its hind legs!
In spite of the many frustrations I experienced, the pangolin quest was ultimately very rewarding. Unlike the lynx encounter last year, I felt we did well (as well as we could) photo-wise, and the long searches made the experience even more fulfilling. So what’s next up at the top my wish list? How about a wolverine… 1
- Not one of those baited Finnish ones though. ↩