While on safari at the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, your wildlife-viewing wish list might read something like this: rhino, cheetah, lion, giraffe, pangolin. In this lineup of iconic bush animals and elusive cats, the small and scaly pangolin might seem out of place. But with their numbers rapidly declining and Tswalu being one of the best places in the world to spot them, guests at the Tswalu Kalahari lodge are eager to catch a glimpse of this rare and unique creature.
Found in parts of Africa and Asia, Pangolins resemble aardvarks or anteaters but are covered in an armor of overlapping keratin plates, making them the only known mammal whose bodies are protected by scales rather than fur. When threatened, the pangolin rolls up into a hard, protective ball that is highly effective in staving off predators—with the exception of poachers, whose impact on the species has been profound.
Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world, with a staggering one million animals having been poached and traded over the past decade. The demand for pangolins is high in parts of Africa, and also in some Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, where people consider their meat a delicacy and their scales essential for certain traditional medicines. As transportation methods advance and human populations increase, escalating domestic and international trade jeopardize the eight existing pangolin species, all of which are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. These animals suffer even further losses due to habitat destruction, electrified fences, and road mortalities.
Scientists and researchers at the newly launched African Pangolin Working Group (APWG) are seeking solutions to the plight of the pangolin, striving toward the protection and conservation of this threatened mammal. The group is sponsoring several active research projects, developing public awareness campaigns, and forming conservation partnerships with relevant stakeholders.
One such partnership is with the Tswalu Kalahari Foundation and lodge—a natural relationship due to the prevalence of one species—called the Temminck’s ground pangolin—on the reserve. Tswalu works closely with APWG researchers, supplying them with samples for studies on genetic diversity and regional genetic patterns in pangolins. The reserve keeps track of sightings to assist in the mapping of pangolin distributions, while also examining factors that govern that distribution—knowledge that directly informs pangolin conservation strategies. Tswalu is also confronting local threats to the animal head-on. The reserve recently hosted a competition to design a pangolin-friendly electric fence, and the winning design is currently being tested on the property.
Additional research initiatives being conducted by the APWG are diverse, with studies on mapping, genetics, traditional uses of pangolins within local cultures, and the prevalence of the animal on the black markets, which help determine the demand for the species and the magnitude of the trade. This multi-faceted approach is unprecedented for an animal that had largely been overlooked by the research community due to their low population densities and predominantly nocturnal habits. It comes at a critical time, when the pangolin’s current rate of mortality is thought to far exceed its reproductive potential.
To find out more about pangolins, check out their feature in a Nat Geo Wild World’s Weirdest video, and read a series of posts from the International League of Conservation Photographers on the National Geographic Voices blog (linked below).
Poachers of Pangolins
Pangolin Prison - Part II
First glimpse of the lion cub. Photo credit: Megan Blackburn
The lioness descends Bushmen Mountain. Photo credit: Megan Blackburn
Photo credit: Megan Blackburn
Close-up of the tiny, blind cub. Look closely, the umbilical cord is still attached. Photo credit: Megan Blackburn
The lioness moves the cub past a waterhole. Photo credit: Megan Blackburn
The lioness arrive at the new den and the second cub is waiting. Photo credit: Megan Blackburn
The lioness moves the second cub to her new hiding spot. Photo credit: Megan Blackburn
The massive tracks of two male lions were visible in the soft red Kalahari sand. We had been searching for lions most of the morning and our experienced tracker and field guide were using these clues to surmise whether the lions had lain down in the dense thicket or were moving towards water. Male lions hold territories of up to 100 square miles, and when patrolling their area to keep unwanted males away from the prides under their protection, they can travel vast distances. Tracks as well as other field signs like animal alarm calls and drag marks are often used to locate lions and other predators. This is a skill honed by years of experience and when an animal is found, I always think it is a remarkable achievement. From his seat perched on the hood of the vehicle, the tracker snapped his fingers and pointed to his left. “Lion” he called out, but this was a sole lioness, not the male lions we were searching for. As the vehicle inched forward, we caught a glimpse of the lioness through the thicket. She was trotting at a quick clip instead of slowly sauntering to conserve energy as they often do when moving during the day. “That’s unusual,” our guide commented. Around the campfire the night before, our guide and tracker had been discussing our remaining few drives at Tswalu Kalahari, the largest private game reserve in South Africa and one of the best places to see the elusive pangolin and aardvark. My travelling companion and I had requested to do some walking—something I always ask to do on safari as it gives you the opportunity to explore the small things that you often zip quickly past on the vehicle. The guide suggested we walk up Bushman’s Mountain at sunrise on our last day to see some rock etchings done by early San inhabitants. The tracker cautioned against this as he thought a lioness had started denning there days earlier. It turns out that our tracker had been right. This lioness was heading directly toward Bushman’s Mountain and she was lactating, a sure sign she had cubs. We followed her and as we approached the base of the mountain we could hear the loud and persistent chirps of her young. With a high degree of caution, she scanned the surroundings before approaching the den and disappearing into a thick, rocky area. Viewing wildlife, like wildlife photography, requires patience. You may wait hours for the cheetah to notice the impala that are grazing 100 feet away or a giraffe lingering near a waterhole to gather the courage to awkwardly bend down for a drink. And then there are times that you are in the right place at the right time. This was one of those times. None of us expected to glimpse the cubs because they were believed to be less than a week old, and yet a minute later the lioness emerged from the thicket with a tiny, blind cub clenched between her jaws.
Our guide’s exclamation, “Oh. My. Word,” perfectly summed up how utterly unexpected and breathtaking this moment was. Within a split second the only sound was the rapid clicks of multiple cameras in burst mode. We may have been visiting Tswalu to see aardvark and pangolin, but we were being treated to one of the most amazing lion sightings possible. Lion cubs weigh just over three pounds at birth and, like all cats, are born blind and unable to walk, making them extremely susceptible to predation by hyena and leopards. Given this vulnerability, a lioness will leave the pride and give birth in a concealed area. During the time she is denning, she will move the cubs between dens as the smell builds and can signal their location to predators. The lioness will rejoin the pride when the cubs are six to eight weeks old—and sometimes later if there are older cubs in the pride. As she walked past the vehicle, we were able to see that the umbilical cord was still attached to the tiny cub. For the next 20 minutes we followed her as she moved deliberately to the new den. We gave her a wide berth and our ranger restricted the viewing to one vehicle so as to not put undue pressure on her. There was enough time to capture a phenomenal number of images and also enough time to put down the camera and marvel at what we were witnessing. This was the youngest cub that our field team (who had a total of 21 years of experience between the two of them) had ever seen. As she approached the new den, we heard the cries of a second lion cub that she had already moved. The cub was in an open, vulnerable area between two rocks. Once she situated herself in thick area, she stuck her head through the branches and pulled the mewling second cub to safety and out of sight. We departed the area having observed an incredibly rare sighting, one that our guide described as the highlight of his guiding career. We continued where we left off, tracking male lions.
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