The pangolin has the unhappy distinction of being the world’s most trafficked wild mammal. But guests at a private reserve in KwaZulu-Natal can help to improve the outlook for these charismatic creature
Coiled into a ball so perfect that its whorls made an Archimedean spiral, the creature at the bottom of the burrow was as complex and confounding as any ancient mathematical equation. Even with the assistance of a telemetry tracking device, we’d spent an hour looking for this living fossil, whose ancestors have slipped through the shadows of the African bush for 85 million years. Stealthier than a secret agent, these are one of safari’s great enigmas, making it even harder to comprehend how they’ve become one of the most trafficked animals in the world.
One of four pangolin species living in Africa, the Temmink’s is probably the most numerous – although no one really has a clear idea of how many are left. Rarely spotted on game drives, the ant-eating mammals are more often seen dead than alive, with images of confiscated carcasses in freight containers bringing the mini dinosaurs to worldwide attention. Prized for their meat and use of scales in traditional medicine, Asia’s own four species have depleted by an estimated 94%. Now, alarmingly, poachers are targeting populations elsewhere, with an estimated 300 African pangolins disappearing every day.
The pangolin I’d struggled to locate was one of the lucky survivors, rescued from the illegal wildlife trade and released back into the wild as part of a pioneering project to repopulate the &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal. I’d accompanied the conservation team as part of a new hands-on, behind-the-scenes Pangolin Experience, now bookable for guests. Beyond the big draw of being within metres of the elusive creature (even for seasoned safari guides, these are a Holy Grail), I’d come to play my part in safeguarding the survival of a living marvel.
A collection of former pineapple farms reclaimed in 1991, Phinda’s private fenced reserve forms part of the 28,600 hectare community-owned Mun-Ya-Wana Conservancy. A blueprint for conservation in action, it’s been responsible for restoring landscapes, protecting endangered species and breeding animals such as rhino and cheetah to successfully restock many of Africa’s denuded national parks. But even though gene pools and carrying capacities are carefully managed, it’s still as raw and untamed as the bush gets.
Locally extinct for almost half a century, the last reported sighting of pangolins in KZN was published in a scientific paper in 1973. “Records show they were present, so we have suitable habitat,” explained Charli de Vos, Ecological Monitor and head of the Pangolin Reintroduction Project, as we hovered over the muddy hole. “Pangolins have been released elsewhere in South Africa, but this is the first attempt to bring back a population that’s disappeared.”
Along with showing me one of the world’s rarest creatures, our search had a more practical purpose: to monitor the animal’s health. First released in June 2019, there are 12 pangolins at Phinda and eight of them have been tagged. For the first few months, new releases are fitted with an expensive VHF satellite tag, transmitting live GPS co-ordinates to a Wildlife Tracker app. Afterwards a combination UHF/VHF transmitter can be detected through a series of blips within a 2.5km range. Channelling into the subtle frequency with the trained ear of a symphony musician, Charli was able to find the pangolin’s chosen spot.
By 8am, the air was already moist and sticky with a veil of humidity cast by the nearby Indian Ocean, causing almost every living thing to seek shade. Largely nocturnal, pangolins avoid the heat, so it required a scramble through rust-red soils and snarled undergrowth to get a glimpse of our charismatic coil. She poked out a long tongue when we arrived. “She’s yawning,” laughed Charlie, as the pink probe unravelled like a hose pipe. Although I had the impression pangolins simply don’t like to be found.
Given Phinda’s reputation for conservation work and high-level wildlife security, it’s no surprise they were chosen by the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG), a non-governmental conservation association, as a viable release site. Although experts in working with endangered animals, Charli admits her colleagues are constantly making “thumbsucks” when it comes to pangolins – simply because so little is known about the species.
Constantly in contact with APWG, which rescues the animals from poachers and provides any rehabilitation care, decisions are based on a combination of intelligence and intuition. That afternoon, we’d received news that approval had been given for a new pangolin to be released. Initially, new arrivals are kept in wooden crates as part of a soft-release process lasting between three and 19 days. They are fed and taken out for daily walks to familiarise them with the new terrain.
“We don’t know where any of our pangolins have come from,” Charli told me as we drove in an open-top 4WD through a rocky area of the reserve, where a threadbare rug of greenery struggled to shroud granite slopes. “Some like drainage lines, others prefer savannahs – every individual is different.”
The female ready for release was still only ten months old and theoretically too small, but her dedicated carer, Leno Sierra, was adamant that the time was right. “The last three nights, she’s been scratching at the crate; it’s been like keeping a Komodo dragon in there,” Leno told us when we arrived at the conservation office, a thatched cottage in the bush.
A lithe Mexican ex-dancer, whose passion and dedication more than compensates for any shortfall in academic training, Leno fell in love with South Africa and found work in a rhino orphanage. She admits her first sighting of a pangolin was less than two years ago, but since then the compromised creatures have filled her every waking (and often sleeping) hour. “They are the most fantastic, mind-blowing nightmare,” she sighed, rubbing one of the many tick bits on her legs collected from daily pangolin patrols.
Looking into the beady black eyes of these prehistoric oddities, it’s easy to forgive any irritations. Although armoured to the hilt, there’s something exceptionally vulnerable about their demeanour, and even a collection of sharp, soil-shovelling talons poses little threat. From their curious, wriggling snouts right down to their plush, padded feet, these animals are irresistibly – albeit unconventionally – cute.
Dazed by daylight, our obedient patient clung calmly to Leno’s waist as Conservation Manager Simon Naylor drilled a tag into the non-vascular area of her scales. Weighing less than 145g, the device was fitted with an antenna attached to a spring, designed to stop it snapping off.
Identifying droptail and pugnacious ants as her charge’s favourite food (pangolins are notoriously fussy eaters and can starve themselves to sickness), Leno had found a suitable release site on the scrubby plains. Phinda prefer not to name their pangolins, fearing too much familiarity can cloud judgements with emotion, but as Leno walked towards the foothills carrying her surrogate offspring, I imagined it must be hard not to become attached.
What’s most surprising about pangolins is their ability to map locations, pinpointing directions like the needle on a compass. As soon as she touched the ground, our eager adolescent started missioning, hoovering up ants as she waddled in a straight line. Racing ahead, I lay in the long grass listening to the sound of her shifting scales clink like a queen overladen with crown jewels. At times she’d stop and stand on hind legs, overlapping her paws in restful contemplation; a pose so human, she reminded me of a little old lady lost in thought.
With so little information available, there are no official guidelines in place regarding monitoring post-release. At Phinda, the team believe it is crucial to keep a close eye on the pangolins to ensure they are safely settled at a particular site. Weighed daily, weekly and then on a monthly basis, they will be observed closely for two years. In the early stages, if an animal loses significant kilos or covers big distances in a night (often a sign of distress) they will be taken back in. One female once travelled a remarkable 17km, over mountainous terrain.
Leno vowed to return later that night to get a visual, and admitted she’d probably lie awake checking her Wildlife Tracker app on the hour. “She’s super-confident… but a pangolin’s favourite thing to do is prove humans wrong,” she sighed.
Never attempted before, this element of the research project could be crucial to safeguarding the success of reintroduced populations. “They are vulnerable creatures, used to being alone in dark holes,” commented Simon, as we debated the outcome of the pangolin’s fragile first hours outside. “It’s like going to New York and coming out of the subway at Grand Central.”
But there’s also the risk of underlying illnesses, often caused by the stress of being poached. Charli cited the example of a pangolin who contracted pneumonia and was put on a nebuliser with antibiotics. Rescued via a sting operation co-ordinated by APWG, animals are initially taken to a vet in Johannesburg. Many have been kept in horrendous conditions: in buckets used to brew traditional beer; inside potato sacks; locked in cupboards, where they almost lose their nails trying to escape. Dehydrated and mentally traumatised, they suffer a form of PTSD. Some shudder at the sound of male voices and others are repulsed by the smell of cigarette smoke – both associations with their captors.
But if pangolins are so notoriously hard to find, why are so many being poached? Many organised crime units use dogs, explained Charli back at Forest Lodge, one of Phinda’s six properties. Others are picked up by opportunistic farm workers. Unfortunately, a pangolin’s defence mechanism is also its biggest weakness: rolling into a ball, they are easy for humans to scoop up. Ironically, the animals were once venerated in Zulu culture: they were gifted to chiefs to bestow favours, and communities feared droughts would ensue if a drop of pangolin blood hit the ground. Unfortunately, along with local populations of the species, those beliefs are now extinct. In local dialect they no longer have a name.
Education is a long-term goal for the project, although Simon admitted he was nervous to inadvertently advertise how much a pangolin is worth on the black market. For now, their main aim is to develop research tools to be shared with others for the greater good of the species, but the cost is high – each animal needs around £5,700 per year.
The guest experience contributes to those funds, with visitors paying an additional fee to observe weigh-ins or download data from tracking devices.
Of course, there are other activities available at Phinda. Game drives are co-ordinated with the etiquette of a high society dinner party: any sightings nearby are shared on the radio, with vehicles forming an orderly queue to avoid over-crowding animals and to keep the experience ‘wild’. I watched lion cubs cavort on a rocky ladder leading to a mountaintop, listened to black-bellied bustards pop like champagne corks as they took flight, and strolled through a rare sand forest of statuesque torchwoods and broad Lebombo wattles, whose girths expand by 1mm per year in a slow amble to grow old. Some lucky guests have even run into pangolins – proof the rewilding initiative is shaping up to be a success.
A true triumph, however, can only be declared when a baby is born on the site. Found in the boot of a car, one pangolin stolen from the Kruger was already pregnant when she arrived. Eager to find out how she was progressing, Simon and Charli decided to track her and quickly register her weight. Preferring to spend most of their time in burrows, pangolins typically emerge to forage in the late afternoon, and occasionally after dark. As the light quickly faded, we thrashed through curtains of thorns and side-stepped snakes, acutely aware of whooping hyenas calling close by.
Weigh-ins are done as quickly as possible to minimise human contact, with the animals placed in a personalised bag hooked to a set of handheld scales. When we found the female, Simon moved swiftly, but we still had time to identify her swollen teats, a sign she must already be breastfeeding. Upside down, her belly looked softer than a pillow and her scales were as brightly buffed as a newly fixed manicure.
A week later, the team’s suspicions were proved correct when a camera trap photograph clearly displayed a diminutive pangopup riding on its mother’s back. The first known pangolin born in KZN in 40 years, it was a symbol of hope, promising a new future for one of Africa’s oldest and most mysterious inhabitants.
Even though there is still much to learn, the team at Phinda are creating a baseline of knowledge. “In time, we may be proved wrong,” shrugged Charli, as we watched our new mother trot back to her burrow. “But in 20 years we may have saved a species. We don’t know; but at least we tried.”
When to go May-September Pangolins are active year-round, but sightings are better in winter when cooler weather allows daylight foraging. Early mornings and late afternoons are best. October Spring is mild and brings warmer temperatures to KZN. March-April Big rains bring an influx of migratory birds.
Getting there & around Emirates fly via Dubai to Durban. A quicker option is to fly direct with British Airways, with flights taking 11 hours. Once there, the writer used a private road transfer to reach Phinda, taking 3 hours 30 minutes. Airlink operates daily scheduled flights to Phinda from Johannesburg or Cape Town. Guided game drives are provided on site.
Accommodation Forest Lodge (Phinda Private Game Reserve, KZN; andbeyond.com). Smart semi-tented rooms are scattered within one of Africa’s last dry sand forests. Mountain Lodge (Phinda Private Game Reserve, KZN; andbeyond.com). Built into a hilltop, suites and cottages with plunge pools overlook the Lebombo foothills.
The writer travelled as a guest of Mahlatini Travel. A four-night trip to andBeyond Phinda Forest Lodge includes international flights, air transfers, all meals, game drives and the Pangolin Conservation Experience.
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