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Pangolin Quest

Guide Barry Peiser searches for pangolins
The top personal goal I set for myself during our South Africa adventure was simple: find the top animal on my worldwide wish list.
 
Okay, not so simple. The top animal on my list (after checking off a Canada lynx in 2020) was the pangolin, one of Africa’s “holy grail species.” Many Africans, long-time guides, and safari enthusiasts go their entire life without seeing one. And, like many other African species, pangolins are threatened by rampant poaching. Seeing one of these elusive nocturnal critters is hard enough without it being the world’s most trafficked animal!
 
Our visit to Tswalu Kalahari—home to pangolin, aardvark, aardwolf, and other seldom-seen animals—was in the works for several years before it finally happened. We had finally locked in a visit last year, but COVID struck and everything was put on hold until 2021. This delay was huge, because the desert environment had undergone a major change by the time we finally arrived.
 
A years-long drought had cleared the landscape of vegetation and made it much harder for the insectivores (pangolin and aardvark among them) to find food. Normally active only at night, these animals had to spend more time foraging during daylight hours. This led to all the reported sightings that got me excited about visiting (in the meantime, I had no idea about the actual awful reason for all those sightings!).
 
In the final months of 2020, however, the tables finally turned. The rains arrived and the Kalahari sprung to life. Well, the plants did. There was long grass everywhere. It was beautiful, but laying an expansive white blanket over all the smaller critters made spotting infinitely more challenging.
Road

The red sands of the Kalahari… and the tall pale grass covering it.

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.

Pangolin Tracking

Barry Peiser and Siphiwe Mandleni search for radio signals.

If we got a signal, we’d at least know the pangolin was around, but we didn’t have much sense of direction. We needed to reposition ourselves in hopes of triangulating the animal’s general position and proximity. The sun was descending rapidly. Of course, I hoped we’d find it before dark (oh, and that it would be out of its burrow so we could get daytime photos), but that was a long shot. The search takes a fair bit of time (though for a lot of sitting and waiting, I found it quite fun).

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!

Ground Pangolin

This was the only photo of the second pangolin that I managed to get before she smelled us and returned to her den.

Unfortunately for us, this particular pangolin was notoriously shy. Once she caught our scent, she froze. A minute later, she turned around and slowly ambled back to her den and disappeared. That was that.

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.

Dusk

Venus shines brightly over the Kalahari Desert at dusk.

We laid out the dinner brought from the lodge and dined under the stars (the Kalahari sky is unmatched in my travels). This is one of the great things about Tswalu: everything is pretty much on your schedule. Eating at the lodge, dining in the bush… whenever you feel like it. There’s no question you’re well-looked after.

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!

Ground Pangolin

Pangolins walk around on their hind legs.

Eventually, she headed our way, and we started to get better views of her face through the grass.
Ground Pangolin

Jenn scored some nice, relatively clear shots from her angle.

In the waning moments of our encounter (we limited our stay to 15-20 minutes), she came close and I was able to learn over to snap a couple portraits.
Ground Pangolin

A rare close portrait from our encounter.

Then she moved out of the spotlight, a long tail covered in the scales so prized by poachers (they’re just like fingernails, people!) fading into the shadows.
Ground Pangolin

Pangolin scales are made of keratin, just like your fingernails. Nobody wants to buy a vial of my nail clippings for $30,000, unfortunately.

Though I didn’t know our time was up, I did pause as she made a turn and walked right in front of me. As with the 2017 solar eclipse, I remembered at the last minute that it was important to just put the camera down and watch. She picked her way past me through the grass, mere feet away. I didn’t even have time to grab a cell phone video, but that was okay. After she passed I thought to myself, “that’s the coolest animal I have ever seen.”

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

Notes:

  1. Not one of those baited Finnish ones though.

1 Comment

  1. Dan Carr September 24, 2021 Reply

    Great story. Glad you got some shots. I think I have to agree that this is the coolest looking animal out there. This is some serious bucket list stuff.

    As for the wolverine… I feel this won’t be any easier! I know they love around me because I got one on a trail cam right behind my house last winter. But I have never seen one with my own eyes.

    Well, I guess you could go to that well-known place in Finland where they bait the animals… People seem to see them there. I doubt there is much satisfaction to that, though.

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