WALKING WITH PANGOLINS

Wendy Panaino

The original article was published on http://anywhereinafrica.com/blog/2017/02

pangolin-in-spotlight

A Pangolin caught in the spotlight. Photo Wendy Panaino

Field research was not something I ever imagined myself doing (partly because I didn’t even know it existed as a kid), but boy did it grow on me. The best part of my research at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve is tracking pangolins every day, and then sharing my experiences with as many people as possible. Not only do I wish to tell people my stories, but I would like all to experience them with me, with the same passion and enthusiasm that I feel when I am out doing what I love. So walk with me, as I walk with pangolins…

Here, I will not describe my typical night out, as I did here. Instead, I’d like to share one extraordinary occasion with you; an adventure where the most unexpected events happened. Having followed pangolins for well over a year now, one might think that I should know just about all there is to know about their behaviour, yet they continue to surprise me. One starry night, while waiting for a pangolin to emerge from its burrow, Dr Alexander Sliwa told me “I only started to really get to know my species (the black-footed cat) after about a year of studying them”. “Bizarre”, I thought, not realising at the time how true those words would prove for my own work.

To put the appropriate picture in mind, I want you to close your eyes for a second. Place yourself in the Kalahari semi-desert, under a dark sky illuminated by billions of stars, smudged by the Milky Way. Feel the warm breeze brushing your cheeks, hear the buzzing of the immeasurable insect life, smell the purity of raw, red earth. This is my reality every night. In what starts out as a typical night, I begin an hour-long journey to reach the home range of a female pangolin that I have been tracking for little over a year now. I stop my vehicle and scan for the elusive creature using my telemetry set, which allows me to find the pangolins tagged with tracking transmitters.

Kalahari Kid tracking (2)

Tracking pangolins in the kalahari. Photo by Wendy Panaino

As it is only 8pm in the middle of summer, I expect to find this female cooped up in her burrow, where I can sit and wait for her to emerge. To my surprise, the tracking equipment tells me that she is already active. I hop back into my vehicle and follow the signal in a northerly direction. I triangulate the signal, park the vehicle, grab my backpack (stashed with essentials– a flashlight, water bottle, notebook, jumper, and little bags for pangolin poop), and set off on foot into the darkness.

My heart racing and my hands gripping the telemetry gear, I listen as the signal gets stronger and stronger as I get closer to the pangolin. What a thrill – knowing that very soon I will lay eyes on one of the world’s rarest animals.

I am close now. I slow down, remind myself to breathe (I have stop breathing while straining my ears to catch the smallest noise), and then stop. GOTCHA! A sound like no other! I turn off the telemetry equipment and listen to the distinctive rustling of the scaly creature moving through the bushes. Following my ears, my eyes eventually focus on a little figure moving under the moonlight. I grin with satisfaction, my heart racing (yes, even after a year, I still get overly-excited when I see the little critter).

pangolin-walking

A Pangonlin walking through the bushes on its nightly business of foraging on ants and termites. Photo credit Wendy Panaino

As if that was not enough, the pangolin took the opportunity to feast on a species of ant that I had not previously recorded. I frantically scribble some notes. In all my excitement, I think “what a night!”. It can’t possibly get any better than this. The night starts to settle, as does my heart rate. The pangolin starts heading in the direction of her burrow, pausing every now and then and sniffing around more than usual. As she gets closer to the burrow, she hesitates slightly, and then enters. I stand quietly for a moment, wondering why she might be acting so strangely. My gut tells me to wait and see if she decides to come out again. Half an hour later, I hear that distinct sound of scales brushing against each other as she comes back out. I give her some time so as not to scare her back into the burrow. The moon glows against her perfectly sculpted scales. I grab my notebook and start scribbling down some notes on the pangolin’s behaviour. Walk, eat, walk, eat, walk, eat – the life of a pangolin. As she becomes more comfortable with my presence, I move closer to see exactly what it is that she is eating. Ants – she LOVES ants! Could you imagine all your energy coming from tiny ants and termites? As I walk alongside this peculiar creature, with pen to paper, I shake my head in disbelief. How did I get so lucky? I get to WALK WITH PANGOLINS every day. I breathe a sigh of appreciation and continue. Suddenly I am stopped in my tracks by a sound unfamiliar to my ears. “Is that a jackal lapping water?” I ask myself, confused. But the sound is coming from the pangolin, so I edge closer to investigate. To my utter surprise, it is indeed the pangolin drinking water. The recent rains had deposited water into pockets at the bases of some black thorn bushes, and this pangolin took the opportunity to lap some of it up, something I had NEVER seen before.

pangolin-drinking-water-from-tree

A rare sighting of a pangolin drinking water. Photo credit Wendy Panaino

I did not anticipate what happened next. In the moonlight, a tiny figure rises from behind mom, who has decided it is time to move house. I bounce up and down like a child that is about to open a Christmas gift, holding my hand over my mouth to stop myself from letting out a squeak. Is this REALLY happening? Am I REALLY watching mom bring baby out of the burrow? I am disappointed that there is nobody around to share this experience with me (I do sometimes have human company at nighy). I pull myself together and scribble more notes. Mom is as gentle as any other; she waits for baby to climb on board (yip, pangolin mothers carry their baby on their back!), and walks off. Nothing could wipe the smile off my face now. Walking side by side with TWO pangolins. Mom is perfectly comfortable having me around, and does not pause for a single moment to investigate my presence. For the next hour-and-a-half, I follow the two as they head due west. Mom does not stop to forage on this journey. She occasionally stops to allow her fallen passenger to climb back on board, but other than that, she has her mind set on a new home and nothing can distract her.

baby-pangolin

Baby pangolin climbing onto his mother’s back. Photo credit Wendy Panaino

Eventually I decide that I should let the two carry on peacefully, without me stomping around after them. I take a step back, inhale deeply, and watch this enigmatic duo disappear into the darkness. I look up to the sky, relax my shoulders as I exhale, and release a tiny giggle. “THAT WAS AWESOME!” I exclaim. Walking back to my vehicle, I find a renewed passion burning in my heart. This experience just magnified my excitement for my work ten-fold. I look forward to spending the next year continuing with my research, being endlessly surprised, and doing what I love most… walking with pangolins.

Born to be a Kalahari kid

Wendy Panaino

 

Pangolin face

A pangolin looks up from its ant meal. Photo by Wendy Panaino

It’s hard to think that almost a year ago, I had barely even heard of pangolins, and now I get to spend most nights with these incredible creatures in the most beautiful place. My MSc research involves investigating the body temperature and activity patterns of free-living ground pangolins (Smutsia temminckii) at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve in the Northern Cape Province. It has taken me a while to sit down and put into words the incredible journey I have been on this year. As I sit and wait for a pangolin to emerge from its burrow, I have plenty of time to gaze at the stars and reflect on my 2015 adventure. How could I possibly put this incredible year into one blog post? So many spectacular stories can be told here, but for now I’ll stick to telling you about my daily field work life at Tswalu.

 

After a successful week of surgery to implant pangolins with temperature data loggers, my adventure into a mind-blowing world was to begin. I’d be away from home longer than ever before, and fending for myself for the first time. I could never have dreamed that I would end up here, living in such a spectacular reserve. I dived right into things, venturing over the sandy dunes of the Kalahari, tracking the pangolins each day with a VHF receiver and antenna. There are few things more thrilling than hearing that first beep coming from your receiver, indicating that the animal you seek is nearby. Whether it takes you five minutes or an hour, you can’t help but feel the excitement boiling inside you when you know you’re getting close. There it is… a beautifully structured burrow that houses the precious scaly creature you’ve been seeking. I place a camera trap, mark the burrow on my GPS and get a slight sense of victory as I walk away.

 

Kalahari Kid tracking (2)

Tracking pangolins in the Kalahari. Photo by Lizelle du Preez

Camera trap

A camera trap in front of a pangolin burrow. Photo by Wendy Panaino

 

Daylight passes and the glorious night sky awakens. The way the moon rises over the mountains is more spectacular here than anywhere I’ve ever seen. This is my FAVOURITE part. I arrive at the burrow that I had marked earlier in daylight hours. I use the VHF receiver to ensure that the pangolin has not left its burrow yet. Providing that it is still in its burrow, I carefully position myself somewhere close by and down-wind. Here I sit and wait for the sound of the pangolin emerging from its burrow. Such a unique sound it is for a mammal, with the scales brushing against each other, a sound that could easily be mistaken for grasses rustling with the evening breeze. However, after spending many nights with these little animals, I have finally developed an ear for the unique sound. The moment I hear the animal in motion, my heart starts to race and the butterflies in my stomach emerge. I am about to lay my eyes on one of South Africa’s most elusive animals; the animal that I have chosen to devote an entire year to study. What a privilege!

 

Pangolin tracker (2)

A pangolin with a tracking device attached. Photo by Wendy Panaino

 

After the pangolin emerges, I follow the scaly critter from a distance as it forages for ants and termites through parts of the night. Recently I have managed to catch a pangolin in the act of laying a scat. How many people have seen a pangolin in the wild, let alone seen its scat? That’s a component that is lacking in most “tracks and signs” wildlife field guides. To take things even further, I have had the most incredible experience of being able to watch a female pangolin emerge from her burrow with her offspring. This may be the highlight of all my experiences here at the ever-so mesmerizing Tswalu, and I’ve only just begun! I cannot wait to see what lies in store for me in 2016.

 

Pangolin baby (2)

A pangolin female with her offspring clinging to her back. Photo by Wendy Panaino.

 

When I am not tracking or following pangolins, I am sitting counting ants that have been collected from pitfall traps. Although this takes many hours out of each day, it somehow gives me a sense of peace and I have learned to embrace it, since I am so fortunate to be doing it in this beautiful reserve. I never thought I’d end up working with insects, but I’ve recently taken it upon myself to learn as much as possible about the various insects and other little creatures that I find in these traps. The endless urge to keep learning and my continuous curiosity is what drives my passion for science and research, and so I encourage myself to embrace every opportunity that comes my way, no matter how small. Looking at each day with utter optimism is what makes my journey so special to me, and is what drives my excitement for this project and this place. And what would such an adventure be without the people I get to share it with? Living with such a diverse group of researchers has been a whole new world of fun, and each person (albeit unknowingly) drives my passion and excitement even further. I have met some of the most incredible people in this spectacular place. Tswalu is possibly the best place I’ve ever had the opportunity to visit. It is so unique and different to any other place I know and I have now started thinking that maybe, just maybe, I was born to be a Kalahari kid.

 

group photo

A few of the researchers and students at Tswalu that inspire me every day. Photo by Wendy Panaino.