The Amazing, Elusive Pangolin

Pangolin near Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Ed. Used through a Creative Commons license.
Pangolin near Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Ed. Used through a Creative Commons license.

When we visited South Africa last month, our group had a running joke. “This place is amazing, but I can’t believe we haven’t seen any pangolins yet!” we’d say in mock surprise, referring to the scale-covered mammal that has been compared to anteaters and armadillos, but is more closely related to cats.

OK. So it’s not the funniest joke in the world. But it amused us. And the reason it amused us is because not seeing a pangolin is to be expected on most safaris. They are one of the most elusive mammals in Africa. They’re rarely out in the day and difficult to find at night. And there aren’t very many of them. Of the four pangolin species living in Africa, two are listed as endangered and the other two as vulnerable. Some guides who have worked in the bush for years have never seen one.

Unfortunately, the African pangolin population is seeing increasing pressures on its population due to the illegal wildlife trade. Poachers who can find them often kill them so their scales can be sent abroad, mostly to China and Vietnam, where their use in traditional medicine has devastated Asian pangolin populations. (Like rhino horn, pangolin scales have no medicinal properties. They are made of keratin, the same stuff found in hair and fingernails.)

Pangolins are fascinating creatures. Some might even call them cute. For a quick primer on their amazingness, check out Africa Geographic’s 11 Fascinating Pangolin Facts.

And in case you’re wondering, we never did see a pangolin. Guess I’ll just have to go back soon to keep searching.


(This post was written by Kathryn Kingsbury, Ujuzi’s communications coordinator, who traveled to South Africa in March.)

The Ngala Tented Camp Experience

While in South Africa earlier in March, I wrote a brief post about the wonderful accommodations at &Beyond’s Ngala Tented Camp, a luxury camp on the western edge of Kruger National Park and right on the Timbavati River.

But we were so busy tracking animals and eating amazing food that I didn’t get a chance to post a summary of our overall experience there.

Ngala Preserve’s 37,000 acres are lush with animals big and small. On our first afternoon, fresh from chasing African wild dogs through Sabi Sands, we took a three-hour game drive and saw four of the Big Five game:

Cape buffalo
African elephant
African elephant

The next day, we saw more of these and the fifth:


Ngala is extremely rich with carnivores. We saw lions and leopards every day we were there, as well as jackals, a pack of hyenas — technically a “cackle,” as our guides informed us — and wild dogs at rest and on the hunt. You can watch all these animals and more on Ujuzi’s YouTube channel:

Our group had three guides and three trackers. The guide and tracker I went on my game drives with were Barney and Earnest. They were both Shangaan South Africans fluent in Tsonga and English. Here’s Barney explaining to us the importance of termites and termite mounds to the local ecology.


Our schedule at Ngala was a little different from that at Kirkman’s Kamp. We woke up to room-service coffee and a light biscuit at 5 a.m., then headed out on the trail at 5:30 a.m. just as the sun was peeking over the horizon and the wildlife were beginning to wake up. This is a great time to spot wildlife, since predators are quite active in the early morning hours.

Read moreThe Ngala Tented Camp Experience

Chobe National Park and its amazing elephants

DSC00139 copyI got home from my safari with Ujuzi and Dickerson Park Zoo a few days ago, but still have lots of memories to share.

Before returning home, most of our group went for a day trip to Chobe National Park in Botswana for more animal viewing. Chobe has several factors that make it a premier safari destination:

  • The Chobe River creates a unique ecosystem with an abundance of wildlife, and safaris via land vehicles or boat offer equally productive animal viewing.
  • The park has a spectacular elephant population numbering in the thousands. Visitors have a very high chance of seeing entire herds of elephants at work and play.
  • Chobe National Park is one of the few places one regularly sees hippos on land during the day. They do this because they’re competing with elephants for food. Getting out of the water during the day gives hippos more opportunities to graze and helps make sure the elephants don’t get all the grass.
  • Because of the river, birdwatching here is good all day, not just in the early morning and late afternoon hours.
  • The park is on the border between Botswana and Namibia, and is just an hour’s drive away from Victoria Falls, which itself is on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia. You have your pick of countries to stay in when visiting Chobe.

Our group started out the day with a drive from Victoria Falls to Chobe National Park. It didn’t take long to get through Botswana’s border control, and we were outside the park at 9 a.m. We spent the next few hours on a river safari, with our two guides pointing out a lot of remarkable wildlife we hadn’t seen yet on this trip, such as African fish eagles and black herons, or hadn’t seen up close, such as hippos and a baby crocodile.

What  surprised me most was how many land mammals we could view from the river. We saw Cape buffaloes, kudus, and a red lechwe. Most of all, we saw elephants—probably close to a hundred of them, and many up close as they played and drank on the shores of the river.

Read moreChobe National Park and its amazing elephants

Victoria Falls: One of the Seven Wonders of the World

Victoria Falls
Our group left Ngala Reserve yesterday, taking a short flight from Kruger National Park to Victoria Falls. We’re staying on the Zimbabwe side of the falls at the classic Victoria Falls Hotel, founded in 1904 as one of the first modern hotels in southern Africa.

Read moreVictoria Falls: One of the Seven Wonders of the World

Living in a Tent, but Not ‘Roughing It’

We arrived at Ngala Tented Camp yesterday and have seen a lot of magnificent wildlife since our arrival, from a two-ton rhino to a pack of hyenas with their young. (Who could have guessed that baby hyenas could be so adorable?)

I’m in the process of posting pictures and video from our Ngala game drives to Flickr and YouTube, so be sure to check those out. For this post, I wanted to focus on Ngala Tented Camp itself.

For most people, the word “tent” doesn’t immediately evoke comfort and luxury. But the tents of Ngala are a different kind of tent. Erected on a wooden platform with a permanent wood frame, these tents have most of the fixings of modern life, including electricity, plumbing, and furniture. What distinguishes them from a cabin or cottage are their  canvas walls and roofs, which allows you to clearly hear the sounds of the bush. Last night, for instance, the sounds of chirping frogs and roaring lions lulled us to sleep. (You wouldn’t think a lion roar would be relaxing, but it can be when it comes from far away.)

Here’s the inside of a tented room at Ngala:

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This place is nicer than my home!

(This post was written by Kathryn Kingsbury, Ujuzi’s communications coordinator, who is spending two weeks in South Africa and Victoria Falls with a group from Dickerson Park Zoo, Springfield, Missouri.)

Rain Brings Wild Dogs to Sabi Sands

We woke up to some much-needed rain in Sabi Sands, South Africa. The area has seen a severe drought this summer — so severe that a local hippo declared Kirkman Kamp’s swimming pool its residence for a week until the staff finally managed to scare it off.

Game drives can go on rain or shine, and a few in our group decided to tough it out. We were eager to see some of the animals that come out in the rain, such as winged termites and the birds that feed on them.

We got in our ponchos and started out on a relaxed game drive. Besides termites and birds such as franklins, brown-headed parrots, a purple roller, and a rather wet and unhappy-looking tawny eagle.

About fifteen minutes into the drive, a kudu leapt across the road in front of us. We didn’t think much of it until several more quickly followed in its path.

“Wild dog!”

I don’t remember who shouted it first – our guide Ally or our tracker Richard — but all our heads spun in the direction from which the kudu were fleeing. There was a straggler in the back, and right on its tail a lone African wild dog sprinting through the scrub.

The dog moved so fast we didn’t have a chance to get good pictures, but we were too thrilled to feel disappointed. There are only about 220 wild dogs in the 250 million hectares that make up Kruger National Park and the surrounding reserves, so getting a single glimpse is an incredible treat.

Can you find the African wild dog darting back toward the brush?
Can you find the African wild dog darting back toward the brush? (Hint: look for a blur beneath the tree.)

However, where there’s one wild dog, a pack is usually nearby, so we decided to see if we could find the others. Ally radioed the other guides to let them know what she’d seen, and a few minutes later another tracker found additional pack members. We joined up with them and I took this video.

I’m happy with how the video turned out, though it can’t convey the whole experience: the excitement of tracking such an elusive animal, the wet dog smell upon finding the whole pack, and the strange hooting sounds the dogs make to communicate with each other over long distances. It was a thrill to be among these rare animals — the kind of thrill one can only find on safari.

(This post was written by Kathryn Kingsbury, Ujuzi’s communications coordinator.)


Look for wild dogs, find a leopard

You never know quite what to expect on safari. Make plans to see one animal, and you often end up finding another.

Such was our experience this afternoon. After yesterday’s experience finding African wild dog tracks, we were eager to see if they had wandered back to our neck of the scrublands.

Fifteen minutes into our drive, after we encountered some gorgeous nyala antelopes, our tracker Richie and guide Ally heard vervet monkeys crying out a warning call. Following the sound, we eventually found the tree where the monkeys had run from danger. One stood at the very top of the tree, calling out as it looked down on a nearby dry riverbed. We headed in that direction while Ally explained that monkeys most often warn for leopards and lions, but occasionally for other predators as well.

At the riverbed, Richie spied fresh leopard tracks. The excitement rose as he followed them through the trees. Meanwhile, Ally drove us toward a small pond that the tracks pointed toward.

At the pond, all the tracking was rewarded with the site of a large, eight-year-old female leopard.

DSC01094We decided to stay and watch her for about half an hour. Even though she didn’t hunt anything, it was fascinating to simply watch such a magnificent animal up close. The camera alone can’t convey the excitement of being near her. And even though she spent most of the time relaxing, she was still constantly moving: panting to cool herself down, looking around to see that the nearby herd of giraffes was still in sight, sipping water from the pool, and grooming herself.

Though we never found the African wild dogs, our afternoon safari was a definite success.

A Day in the Life of Kirkman’s Kamp

Our group has been at &Beyond’s Kirkman’s Kamp for two days, and the stay so far has been outstanding. Browsing through Ujuzi’s Flickr page and YouTube channel, you can get an idea of the incredible range of wildlife our guides here have introduced us to. But pictures aren’t enough to convey other aspects of the experience, such as an attentive staff, meals that would do any five-star restaurant proud, and accommodations that are at once luxurious and steeped in the wild.

We start out each day at 5:30, just around sunrise, with a wake-up knock on the door from our guide. After getting dressed, we walk from our cottages to the main lodge for coffee and biscuits, then head out for the morning game drive by 6:15 a.m.

Mornings are a great time to view animals because many of them are most active before the heat of the day sets in. On mornings here we’ve seen leopards, lions, Cape buffalos, giraffes, and a variety of birds and antelope, from small duikers to great big kudus.

Yellow hornbill
Yellow hornbill

The guides and trackers here are incredibly knowledgeable and have great eyes for spotting things most people would miss. Yesterday our tracker Richie stopped the vehicle upon noticing tracks in the sandy road. He soon identified them as the two-day-old footprints of African wild dogs headed east. Though we weren’t able to follow the tracks all the way to the dogs themselves, it was exciting to know we were standing in the same space as these elusive predators had a short time before. From tiny carmine bee eaters (a colorful bird) to huge hippos, Ally and Richie have shown us hundreds of animals we never would have found on our own.

Male kudu
Male kudu

Yesterday, we stopped on a shady bluff overlooking the Sands River for coffee and ginger cookies a couple hours into our drive. My group’s guides, Allie and Richie, introduced us to a drink they call a “mocha-choca-rula” — a blend of coffee, sweet-and-salty hot cocoa, and Amarula, a cream liqueur made from the fruit of the native marula tree.

Read moreA Day in the Life of Kirkman’s Kamp

We Saw All Big Five at Sabi Sands

We left Cape Town yesterday for Sabi Sands, a private game reserve on the edge of Kruger National Park. The wildlife here is incredible. Within a few hours of arriving, I had already seen a herd of elephants, a pair of leopards mating, and two young rhinos.

Today, I saw hippos, a crocodile, lions, Cape buffalo bulls, giraffes, half dozen different kinds of antelope, and enough birds to fill a few pages of my notebook.

Internet is a little slow out here in the bush, so I’ve only been able to upload a few photos and videos from the past two days to Flickr, YouTube and Facebook. Please drop by those sites to browse the images.


A Relaxing Day in the Cape Winelands

When we awoke this morning, a thick fog had descended on Cape Town. Fortunately, most of the fog burned off by the time we were ready to embark on our day of tastings in the Cape Winelands, leaving only a misty haze in the distance.

Our first stop was the Spice Route Winery in Paarl, which means “pearl” in Afrikaans and is named after a granite mountain that gives off a pearlescent shine after the rains.

Spice Route Winery
Spice Route Winery

We tasted six excellent local wines and enjoyed a lovely view. In addition to wine tastings, the Spice Route Winery offers a great introduction to an array of South African and African fine foods, from cured meats to chocolates to craft beer.

View from Spice Route Winery in Paarl.
View from Spice Route Winery in Paarl.

We took the Wine Route from Paarl to Franschhoek, an area settled by Huguenots in the seventeenth century, stopping outside Drakenstein Correctional Centre (formerly Victor Verster Prison), where Nelson Mandela spent the last 14 months of his political imprisonment for resisting apharteid.

Statue of Nelson Mandela outside Drakenstein Correctional Centre (formerly Victor Verster Prison), where he spent the last 14 months of his political imprisonment for resisting apharteid
Statue of Nelson Mandela outside Drakenstein Correctional Centre (formerly Victor Verster Prison), where he spent the last 14 months of his political imprisonment for resisting apharteid

Read moreA Relaxing Day in the Cape Winelands