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.
- 11 Fascinating Pangolin Facts — Africa Geographic
- The Most Trafficked Mammal You’ve Never Heard Of — CNN
- Pangolins — World Wildlife Fund
- Illegal Pangolin Trade Threatens Rare Species — Worldwatch Institute
(This post was written by Kathryn Kingsbury, Ujuzi’s communications coordinator, who traveled to South Africa in March.)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)