WALKING WITH PANGOLINS

Wendy Panaino

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

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The African Buffalo

Arista Botha

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A large buffalo bull can weigh close to a tonne. Photo by Arista Botha

 

The African buffalo is notorious for being one of the most dangerous animals of the African bush. A large bull can weigh close to a tonne and their horns can grow more than a metre wide. Not only are they big and strong, but also fearless. Many online videos, such as this one, show buffalo attacking lions to defend their calves or fellow herd members:

 

Buffalo are also known for being one of the deadliest large mammals for humans to come across in the African bush. In recent news a SANParks ranger was attacked and seriously injured by an African buffalo.

 

I had my first encounter with buffalo during my Masters’ research. Dr Hilary Lease was the postdoc who was involved in the project and she was also my supervisor and friend. We did fieldwork together at Mokala National Park. Even though my study was focussed on black and blue wildebeest, Hilary and I would often encounter buffalo when out on foot, tracking our study animals. While other large ungulates, such as gemsbok or eland, would run away at the sight of a human on foot, a buffalo would move in for a closer look…

 

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Not only are they very dangerous animals, buffalo are also very inquisitive. Photo by Piet Rossouw.

 

They have this intimidating glare that, even when you are seated in a vehicle, makes you wonder how safe you really are. During our fieldwork, we would often climb a hill, just to find a buffalo looking at us inquisitively from the other side. The buffalo would take a few steps towards us, and we would retreat back to our car.

 

One day, we were struggling to locate a particularly elusive wildebeest bull in a very hilly area. Due to the uneven terrain around us, the tracking transmitter signal was bouncing around. We followed a signal in one direction, convinced that the wildebeest must be just on the other side of the next hill, only to find that when we got there, the signal was suddenly coming from the opposite direction.

 

Staring intently at the tracking receiver, we walked along the crest of a hill. In our frustration with the bouncing signal, we let our usual vigilance slack. Suddenly, there was a loud rustling behind us. We turned around to face an enormous and very surprised buffalo bull only a few meters away from us. For several frozen seconds humans and bull just stared at each other. Then the realisation dawned on us that WE NEED TO GET OUT OF HERE. Slowly, we backed away down the slope, too scared to turn our backs on this large beast. The minute we were out of the buffalo’s sight we ran for it!

 

With great speed and pumping adrenaline, we made our way down the hill and all the way around to the other side. In our haste, we flushed an African wildcat out of a bush! That was my first sighting of this elusive cat species. Although not much more than a blur, with a ringed tail that sped away in front of us, it left me in breathless amazement.

 

We arrived at the safety of our vehicle with a fresh respect for buffalo and a new cat species to tick off our sightings list. Laughing in nervous relief and still trying to catch our breath, we drove off and decided to go and look for our wildebeest elsewhere.

 

Nowadays I am privileged enough to study the impressive buffalo for my PhD – fortunately from a safe distance and with support from SANParks’ very experienced wildlife staff. Yet even from the other side of a fence, every time I am scrutinised by that intimidating glare, I can’t help but feel the need to slowly back away.

Kruger behind the scenes

Malek J Murad

 

When the student protests finally ended, we went to the Kruger National Park, the biggest national park in South Africa (the park is as big as Belgium), to collect data for a research project on buffalo. I was looking forward for our trip really badly and I was so excited when we finally got there.

 

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First time in Kruger! Photo by Malek Murad

 

How did it feel to be in Kruger for the first time? Incredible! We were sitting outside, having dinner, while a gecko was catching a moth and some mosquitoes by the light of the lapa. A perfect symbiosis. I hate mosquitoes.

 

In Kruger, it is never quiet. You fall asleep to the sound of the crickets chirping. You wake up in the middle of the night and the crickets are still chirping. Then you lie awake for two hours, because you are so excited. There is always an animal calling somewhere. Was that a hyena maybe? In Kruger, it is never quiet. And your heart isn’t either.

 

If you have never been to Kruger you should add a visit to your to-do-list. On our way to our camp, we watched an elephant herd taking a bath from 100 m away. Readers who have seen an elephant bull from up close will know what I mean; he’s not just big, he’s huge! And at that moment in time I did not yet know how close I would get to an elephant bull during my visit…

 

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Elephants enjoying the water on a hot day. Photo by Arista Botha

 

After a short night in Kruger Vetcamp, we left early the next day to start with our research work. So this is how wildlife research works: You get up at 4 o’ clock to start work at 5. What is the benefit of that? You have to work in the cooler morning hours and finish before noon to prevent heat stress for the animals during immobilisation. What is the benefit for yourself? You can go for a game drive in the afternoon!

 

So why did we go to Kruger National Park? What did we do there? Arista Botha, PhD student at BFRG, is currently doing research on African buffalo. The buffalo have to be sedated so that we can collect samples and weigh them. No sooner said than done. The well-rehearsed team of the Kruger State Veterinarians sedated, weighed and measured all the buffalo and collected all the samples well before noon. The Kruger veterinarians allowed me to help out where I could.

 

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The buffalo were immobilised to collect samples and to weigh them. Photo by Malek Murad

 

The director of the BFRG, Professor Andrea Fuller, asked the senior manager of Kruger Veterinary Wildlife Services, Dr Peter Buss, if I could help out with any other projects during my stay in Kruger. Luckily, there was an elephant bull that had to be routine-sampled the next day. So we went into the bush with a 4×4 vehicle and a helicopter to look for the bull.

 

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The helicopter manoeuvres into position to dart the elephant bull. Photo by Malek Murad

 

I was very close when the one ton elephant bull was darted from the helicopter. It was incredible to see how accurate the helicopter pilot controlled his machine. He was able to position the helicopter perfectly for the veterinarian to dart the bull from up there. Shot – Strike! You could easily see that the dart had hit its mark by the pink feather on the end of the dart. We then had to follow the elephant, who was running away from us into the bush. The effect of the anaesthetic is not immediate; it usually takes a few minutes before the animal goes down. We drove through the bush for 1,5 kilometres until we found him. As soon as we were there, we started routine sampling, measurements and a general health check-up on the elephant.

 

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Elephant bull undergoing routine sampling and health check. Photo by Malek Murad

 

My first trip to one of the South African National Parks (SANParks) was fantastic. Not only could I enjoy the wonderful scenery, but I was able to observe, from up close, the SANParks Veterinarians doing their job with their impressively elaborate and professional routine. It is the dream of every veterinary student to be a part of that.

 

“I think you get born with the spirit of a vet. I don’t know anybody who decided to become a vet at the age of 18. I mean there are many other possibilities to earn more money without getting that dirty.” – Lou (24), qualified in veterinary medicine this June.

At the end of our last day in Kruger we watched the sunset at Lake Panic. We watched the hippos playing in the water and just enjoyed ourselves and Kruger.

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Sunset over Lake Panic. Photo by Arista Botha

 

I am so glad that I had made the decision to come over to Africa. I was very lucky – I met the right people who gave me the help and support I needed. People who gave me the opportunity to develop and to use the skills I have. Not only here in Africa, but also at home in Germany. They taught me to be confident. I especially have to thank my parents who always support me and back me in everything I do. I can always rely on them. There were many hurdles to overcome before I could get here. My wish for everybody who has a dream in life, is that he will take his chance and that he will find people who will back him when he needs them.

Tiger Paws and heart beats

Malek Murad

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Tiger Paw. Photo by Malek Murad

Malek is a veterinary student from Germany, who is currently visiting us as part of his internship. He is writing up some of his experiences in South Africa for his own blog (in German), but he has agreed to translate his thoughts into English to share it with us. For those German speaking friends of ours, you can find the original article on his blog at https://malekgoesafrika.wordpress.com

Because of the nationwide protests at South African Universities (including Wits University) during the first few weeks of my internship, we had to find an alternative solution for me until the student protests ended. So, I went to assist the veterinarians at the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa (NZG) in Pretoria. Getting there from Johannesburg seemed like it would be a little trip around the world, since I did not have a car, but the Gautrain got me there within an hour. Luckily I could stay over at a friend’s house. My German friend Whincents, who is working in Pretoria at the moment, is a heart-warming fellow. He cared for me like a mother for her son: he organized an air bed and made breakfast for me.

 

At NZG I was able to assist Dr. Bruns, the local zoo veterinarian. Our purpose for the next few days was to collect sperm from different species in the zoo, including tigers and several antelope species. This task required a team of experts: A sperm-researcher from Cape Town, an expert on in vitro fertilization, sperm collection and embryotransfer and the whole veterinary team of the zoo. The animals were sedated and then stimulated to ejaculation using electric prostate stimulation. Success was not always guaranteed, due to bad sperm quality, weak erections or failure to get an erection. I guess that is similar to how things work in nature…

 

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Due to the student protests we had to find an alternative solution for my internship, so I went to assist the veterinarians at the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa (NZG) in Pretoria. Photo by Malek Murad.

 

“What do you know about wildlife sedation?” was Dr Bruns first question while she was preparing the dart for the tiger sedation. “I know the drug you normally use – it’s etorphine, isn’t it?” Dr. Bruns just continued to prepare the dart for her air gun: “For tigers? You can use it.” She turned over to me, looking into my eyes. “Once. And it will be the last time. It’s too potent for cats.” For those of you who are interested: while etorphine hydrochloride is commonly used to sedate many ungulates, cats are usually sedated with a combination of Zoletil (a mix of tiletamine and zolazepam) and medetomidine.

 

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Dr. Bruns, the local zoo veterinarian, was a keen teacher and allowed me to help out where I could. Photo by Malek Murad.

 

I have learned a lot about wildlife sedation during my time in the NZG and I had my first experience working with wildlife. Dr. Bruns was a keen teacher and allowed me to help out where I could. Those were experiences I will never forget in my whole life. How many people have heard the heartbeat of a tiger before?

 

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How many people have heard the heartbeat of a tiger before? Photo by Malek Murad.