Wildlife Spotlight: The African Pangolin

By Sarah Gold April 12, 2022

Easily some of the most marvelous-looking creatures to inhabit Africa’s grasslands and forests, pangolins are the only mammals in the world that sport coats of dragon-like scales. Sadly, these shy, solitary animals are as prized among poachers as they are to wildlife enthusiasts—and in recent years, despite legal protections, pangolins have achieved the dubious title of most-trafficked species on the planet.

But while African pangolins have faced steep population declines—and their furtive, nocturnal habits have always made them challenging to spot—it is still possible to encounter these rare and unique creatures in the wild on a luxury African safari. Here are a few details to help you maximize your chances, and to appreciate why pangolins are so special.

Singularly Striking—and Full of Surprises

There are actually four different subspecies of pangolin found on the African continent, and the distinctions among them can be remarkable. Black-Bellied and White-Bellied Pangolins, typically found in the lowland forests of Central Africa, are only about the size of a housecat, maxing out at around eight pounds; they’re also arboreal—spending much of their lives sleeping and climbing among tree branches to forage for ants and termites. The two varieties most typically seen on safari, on the other hand—the Cape or Temminck’s Pangolin and the Giant Pangolin—are ground-dwellers, and can weigh up to 70 pounds each (about the same as a Labrador retriever). These terrestrial pangolins make their homes in the savannas of Southern Africa and East Africa, snoozing by day in burrows abandoned by other animals, and searching for ant hills and termite mounds in the evenings by walking—startlingly—on their hind legs.

All African pangolins, however, share their most marked characteristics: Small, pointed snouts equipped with long sticky tongues to lap up insects; powerful front claws for tearing up tree roots and dry earth; and thick coats of layered, sharp, armor-plate scales that that make them resemble pinecones. But though these traits are similar to those of other species like anteaters, armadillos, and reptiles, pangolins are in fact most closely related to carnivores like dogs and bears.

Vulnerable, Elusive—and Highly Sought-After

Apart from their ability to roll into impenetrable armored balls (for which they are named— “pangolin” comes from the Malay word pengguling, meaning “one who rolls up”), pangolins have almost no defense mechanisms against predators. Timid, slow-moving, and almost always alone except for when they mate and bear young, the creatures can easily fall prey to bigger animals like leopards, lions, and hyenas. It’s little wonder they prefer to keep a low profile; so much so, in fact, that scientists have learned very little about pangolins’ life spans, mating habits, or how they raise their young (though pangolin pups are known to hitch rides on their mothers’ tails).

The biggest threats to pangolins, however, come from humans. In some Asian countries, pangolin scales—which are made of keratin, the same material as horse hooves and human fingernails—are believed to have curative properties, and are so highly coveted on the black market that more than 1 million of the animals are estimated to have been illegally trafficked over the past ten years.

African pangolins have also faced risks from some indigenous tribes, who have traditionally hunted them for bushmeat. Increasingly, though, tribal leaders have been working to spread the gospel of pangolin conservation among their communities. They’ve done this by reminding their cohort that pangolins have long been portrayed in legend as harbingers of good luck and life-giving rain—and also explaining how pangolins play a crucial role in the management of ant and termite populations in their home ecosystems.

Where and When to Spot African Pangolins

No matter what time of year you plan your safari, your chances of seeing a pangolin in the wild are slim. Every year, however, a handful of lucky travellers do get to spy these rare and extraordinary animals—usually on night game drives, but occasionally during the day as well. Among the preserves where they have been regularly spotted are Amboseli National Park, in Kenya; Serengeti National Park, in Tanzania; and Thornybush Game Reserve, in South Africa.

Even if you aren’t able to spot a wild specimen, you may be able to encounter a pangolin through one of the conservation programs or resident wildlife sanctuaries offered at many of Micato’s partner safari camps. And as always, your Micato Safari Director and guides can teach you all about the habits of these creatures, and even point out signs that they’ve passed through the landscape.

To learn more about pangolins, and countless other marvelous wildlife species that live in Africa’s game parks and preserves, speak with one of Micato’s safari-planning experts.

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