A stranger creature, one would surely struggle to find.
If you ask us, an immediate contender for an equally strange looking animal would probably be an aardvark, but other than that, the pangolin must surely win first prize.
Very secretive, solitary, predominantly nocturnal and subsequently hardly ever seen, pangolins are amongst the most sought-after sightings in the Kruger National Park.
This is in particular with more seasoned Kruger Park visitors who have seen elephants, lions, leopards, rhino, giraffes, zebra, impala and buffalo on numerous visits to the park. It’s the connoisseur’s highlight of the year - the cherry on top!
As an example, I’ve guided throughout Southern and East Africa for over a decade and saw one… once. That’s it! Now just imagine writing an article on an animal that is frankly not well known and hardly seen.
However, the facts that we do know about the pangolin are fascinating, so I’ll try and excuse the potentially boring facts for an animal that is everything but boring!
Globally, we have two geographically distinct groups of pangolins, namely the Asiatic and the African pangolins. The Asiatic pangolin consists of three species, namely the Indian, Chinese and Malayan pangolin, whilst Africa has four species namely the giant, cape, tree and long-tailed pangolins.
Interestingly, pangolins are very poorly represented in fossil records for two reasons. Firstly, they have no teeth, which are often the only remains of an animal found in fossils and secondly, their bones are particularly susceptible to destruction.
The Kruger National Park plays host to the Cape pangolin (Manis temminckii). Pangolins get their names from the Malay word ‘peng-goling’, meaning the roller, because of their habit of rolling up into a ball when they feel threatened.
When (or rather IF) you ever get lucky enough to see one, it simply cannot be confused with any other animal. Large, heavy brown scales cover its upper body, with its underbelly and portions of its face devoid of any scales, and it can reach a length of over a metre and weighs about 18 kilograms.
They live in holes in the ground or termite mounds. Whether they dig these holes themselves is up for debate and most that have been observed have made use of existing aardvark or spring hare holes.
I could not advise you on where the best place to see pangolins is in the Kruger National Park. We have on our Kruger National Park safaris, over the years, stumbled upon them in various locations including the Pretoriuskop, Skukuza and Satara regions. They are, in theory, found throughout the Kruger.
Pangolins eat predominantly ants and termites. They have long, sticky tongues that they stick into ant nests. And because the tongue is sticky, ants get stuck on its tongue allowing the pangolin to “trap” the ants, which also ensures that it gets a decent portion.
With them not having any teeth, it’s actually lucky their tongues are sticky! With the ants that they lap up, they also ingest quite a lot of small stones and sand which assists greatly in grinding up the ants they eat, in their stomachs. They are an important regulator of termite populations throughout the Kruger National Park.
Pangolins have poor vision and therefore, rely heavily on smell and hearing for protection and awareness. As mentioned above, they are solitary and will only meet up to mate.
Their gestation periods last about one hundred and thirty-five days in the Kruger National Park, and they will give birth to a single young that is suckled in the den. At two years of age, they are considered mature and abandoned by their mother.
A pangolin’s scales and meat are highly sought after in various parts of the world as it is believed they cure a bleeding nose and various other ailments such as anxiety, hysterical crying in babies, malaria and deafness, to name but a few.
In fact, in East Africa, pangolins are referred to as “Mr Doctor” as they believe all body parts have some form of healing property. Imagine that... killing such a beautiful animal for your bleeding nose!
Approximately 100,000 pangolins are trafficked every month to China and Vietnam, making the pangolin the most trafficked animal in the world! As a result, all pangolins species throughout the world are classified as threatened by the IUCN, and three of those further classified as critically endangered.
Trying to breed pangolins in captivity have largely been unsuccessful. They require a very wide range of habitats and have extremely particular diets.
On top of that, and quite interestingly, they also have poor immune systems due to a genetic dysfunction which makes them susceptible to diseases such as pneumonia. Captive animals are also very susceptible to ulcers, which often cause complications and, ultimately, death.
Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in December 2019, pangolins have been thrown further into the spotlight.Initially researchers, through samples taken from pangolins, found that there was a 99% match to the SARS coronavirus 2, the virus which causes COVID-19. It was initially thought that pangolins were the “bridge” that the virus used to jump from bats to humans, however, after a whole-genome study was conducted, it was found that in fact, the human and pangolin virus share only 90.3% of their RNA.
Needless to say, there’s been great concern regarding speculation that the pangolin was responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, as it could have resulted in a mass slaughter and the, subsequent, extinction of the species.
There is quite a bit of folklore surrounding such a strange animal, from Asia right through to Southern Africa and more precisely, Zimbabwe, where it is believed that pangolins are a symbol of good luck and that killing a pangolin invites the opposite, bad luck. It’s considered an absolute act of taboo.
The pangolin is indeed an interesting animal with an interesting past and a very uncertain future.In Southern Africa, and particularly places like the Kruger National Park, every effort is made to protect pangolins, and thanks to their secretive nature, they do not do too badly.
Will our grandchildren be able to see pangolins in the wild, or at least have a chance to see them? I’m confident they will.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, heavy emphasis and critique is being placed on Chinese wild animal markets, and people throughout the world are condemning these markets more than ever.
Hopefully, as a result, animals like the pangolin will be less likely to fall into the hands of unscrupulous traders and they will just be left alone, to be… well... pangolins, casually and freely walking in the cover of darkness through the Kruger Park’s magnificent bush, looking for ants and termites to eat.
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