The Impossible Five: The Search For a Pangolin

Darren with Tokman the pangolin.

Darren with Tokman the pangolin.

Over the past three months I’ve been searching for the Impossible Five, the five most elusive animals in South Africa. In the end I managed to find three and a half out of five (it’s a long story, for another time). Perhaps the hardest creature to nail was the pangolin. Here’s how we got him … 

There is an enormous hunting ranch near Upington called Kalahari Oryx where a young scientist is researching pangolins. A barefoot Darren Pietersen met me in the driveway. I was to spend the coming days with his family at their home (Darren’s father is manager of the ranch).

After a sociable family dinner, Darren and I set out. He had six pangolins fitted with transmitters and it should have been relatively easy to track them down. As he drove, we talked about his masters thesis. He told me about the pioneering pangolin research done by Jonathan Swart in Mpumalanga in the 1990s. Darren was comparing the earlier findings with his own observations. Most noticeably, these ‘desert’ pangolins were on average a third smaller than those studied by Swart and had adapted in many ways to the drier conditions. In the Kalahari they were also diurnal in winter, which differed from their lowveld cousins.

Darren thought there were about 60 on the property, but quite a number had been killed by electric fences. Other than humans, this are the only other real threat to pangolins. When they get shocked they automatically roll into a ball for self-defence, often around the electrified wire, which repeatedly shocks them. Darren said they were experimenting with fences that allowed for pangolin traffic.

We stopped a few times on the crests of dunes to check the telemetry. When he picked up a strong signal, we continued on foot. We came to a burrow and Darren pointed the antenna at the ground. The pangolin was down there, just below our feet. ‘Very strange,’ said Darren. ‘It’s already ten o’ clock and he hasn’t emerged yet.’

We proceeded to another burrow, then another. All the pangolins were home, soundly asleep. We returned after midnight … to find all of them still in their burrows. Darren looked perplexed. ‘This doesn’t normally happen. Maybe they heard you were coming.’

The next night we were back. Again the likely candidates were snug underground. I’d almost given up hope when we came to Tokman’s burrow. Darren directed his torch to a clump of grass … and there it was.

Like a prehistoric beetle, it waddled across our path, a scraping sound coming from its scales. Tokman was a mature male. He emitted a low purring, almost like an elephant’s rumble. Tokman looked for all the world like a cross between a pinecone and a sausage dog. I was elated; Darren looked visibly relieved.

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