Up close and personal with a Pangolin

by Jonathan Swart – Research Ecologist

The most amazing thing about finding a pangolin in the bush is that you don’t have to sit in your vehicle and look at it from a distance with your binoculars; you can actually walk up to it and have a closer look.

So, if you are on a game viewing safari in Welgevonden Game Reserve and a guide calls in a pangolin sighting on the radio, you don’t even have to rush to get there before the pangolin disappears into the bush, because as long as someone is standing close to the pangolin it is unlikely to go anywhere.

This has been my experience while I had studied pangolins for several years by following them on foot.

This pangolin encounter was no different… on Sunday morning 3rd August I was working in the office when I received a message on the radio that Ephraim, one of the guides, had found a pangolin close to Clearwater Lodge.

Everyone in the reserve knows that if they find a pangolin, I am the first person they have to call, even before their mum. I immediately responded and made my way to the pangolin sighting, and on arriving someone asked how I got there so quickly. I rushed, not because I was afraid the pangolin would disappear, but because I was excited to see another pangolin. When I arrived, the pangolin was lying in the grass with the head tucked in under the body and there was already a group of people standing there, all staring at the pangolin with wonder and glee written all over their faces.

What they were looking at was a Temminck’s Ground Pangolin, Smutsia temminckii, one of four species occurring in Africa and the only pangolin species occurring in Southern Africa.

A pangolins’ first reaction to danger is to just stand still and hope that it is not detected. If the danger approaches closer they usually lie flat on their stomach and tuck in the head so that they could easily be mistaken for a rock or tree stump.

Take it from me; I have first-hand experience with this. I remember tracking one of my radio tagged pangolins one evening and when I was close enough to see the pangolin I couldn’t find it. I wondered around in circles looking for the pangolin in the grass before mistaking it for a rock and eventually tripping over it. This was the first time I heard a pangolin growl, which actually sounds more like a cheetah’s purr. My action caused the pangolin to snap into a tightly rolled ball, which is how pangolins protect themselves from would-be predators.

The scales are the pangolins armoury and since they only cover the body dorsally the pangolin needs to roll into a tight ball to protect its soft underbelly. All the scales overlap each other like roof tiles and as the pangolin moves about the scales are continually honed to a sharp knife edge, which can inflict a nasty wound if a predator attempts to unravel this tightly rolled ball of razor blades. The scales have a similar makeup to finger nails, except much harder: they are made up of keratinised hair fibres and originate from the dermis of the skin.

I must have had the same look of wonder and glee on my face as we all stood next to the pangolin waiting and hoping that it would eventually unravel so that we could see its enchanting little face. I knew this was highly unlikely unless we were all dead quiet and stood a little further away, so I took this opportunity to bring everyone closer to the pangolin and share some of the interesting things I had learnt about these enigmatic creatures.

Pangolins are solitary nocturnal myrme cophagous (ant eating) mammals. They are bipedal, walking on their back legs with their body held horizontally and counterbalanced by the weight of their large tail. The front legs are held close to the chest and occasionally touch the ground while the tail also touches the ground to maintain balance. While foraging, pangolins walk in a zigzag pattern sniffing the ground continuously until they find an ant’s nest by smelling them through the soil surface.  They quickly dig open the nest with their sharp front claws to expose the ant galleries and insert their 30 cm long rod shaped tongue covered with sticky saliva to lick up the ants.

Pangolins have no teeth, so the ants are swallowed whole and ground up by the muscular stomach facilitated by the ingested sand. Approximately 96% of their diet is ants and 4% termites.  When it comes to mealtimes though, pangolins are fussy eaters and even though there may be 50 to 60 species of ants in their area, the bulk of their diet will usually consist of five or six species of which one species may make up as much as 75% of their diet.

Judging by the size of this pangolin and the shape of the scales, which terminate in a small point, I estimated that this was a young pangolin of about a year old. Adult pangolins have larger scales worn down to a straight very sharp edge such as the one in the photo above, which I also photographed on Welgevonden about a year ago in the same area as the pangolin we were watching. Whenever I have the fortune of finding a pangolin I like to collect basic information such as the sex and weight of the individual to add to my existing knowledge base.

Weighing a pangolin is quite simple, however sexing a pangolin is not, since the only way this can be accomplished is by looking under the armoured tail. This requires patience and knowhow, since they have an incredibly strong muscular tail that makes it impossible to pry the pangolin open without injuring yourself or the pangolin. The easiest way to sex a pangolin is to have it lying face down with the soft underbelly on the ground. So, I gently rolled the pangolin onto its stomach and then gently lifted the tail up from the tip until the genitals were visible – It’s a boy! I duly noted the pangolins sex and then proceeded to weigh him.

I always advise people that if they find a pangolin, never to pick it up off the ground. When pangolins are handled they often swipe their tail quickly in a scything action around the body in an attempt to break free and inflict injury. If the pangolin is lifted off the ground when this happens, one is likely to drop and injure the pangolin, since it is a natural reaction to let go. When I weigh a pangolin I always gently roll it into a large enough bag before hanging the bag and pangolin on the scale; this is easy once they roll into a ball. I estimated the pangolins weight to be about 5 kg and he weighed in at exactly 5.5 kg, which was confirmation that he was about one year old.

Pangolins live for approximately 14 years and males could weigh up to about 18 kg. This young male would have been weaned at about 7 months, but is probably still sharing the same den as his mother. Pangolins only have one offspring at a time, probably because they are only able to protect one at a time by rolling around it. Pangolins live in abandoned aardvark or warthog burrows and when moving their offspring from one den to another the mother allows the youngster to climb on her back to hitch a ride.

After I recorded all the info that I needed on the pangolin we all took a few steps back and stood absolutely still without anyone moving even a hair, until eventually he unravelled and delighted us with his little wet nose pointing up at the sky while sniffing the air for danger before moving off. We all stood totally captivated by the presence of this mysterious looking being as he perambulated off past our feet and into the distance with his body horizontal and nose to the ground.

After everyone had left I couldn’t resist following him to see where he was going. I only followed him for about 20 m before he disappeared underground into his den. I couldn’t help wondering if his mother had been underground in this den all along waiting for her son to come home.