This will probably sound crazy to most people, but hands down the best day of 2018 was the day we found a pangolin in Zimbabwe. You probably have no idea what a pangolin is….and even if you do then you are also probably wondering why this would be the best day of the year? ….Well, imagine you are obsessed with unicorns and then find one in the wild for yourself – that’s pretty much equivalent to how amazing this experience was for us.
Pangolins, also known as “scaly anteaters” are the coolest animal around (with lemurs coming in close second…then manta rays and narwhals). They are covered in thick scales and have long “armored” tails which make them look like little dinosaurs – but they are actually very timid mammals. They live in hollowed out trees or burrows which they dig out using their tiny arms that are equipped with ferocious looking claws. The reason for the long tail and thick scales is protection. When they feel threatened, pangolins curl up into a ball which is impenetrable to all predators…..except for humans. They live off ants and termites which they slurp up using a long gooey tongue.
So why is it so special to see a pangolin? Well, first of all they are nocturnal so encounters during daylight are incredibly rare. Secondly, they are extremely shy solitary animals that camouflage into their surroundings. But most importantly, they are a critically endangered species. Why? Because they are tragically the most highly trafficked animal in the world. So there really aren’t very many of them left in the wild. Pangolin scales are prized in Chinese medicine for their “healing” qualities (particularly because they are thought to cure cancer). In China and Vietnam pangolin meat is a delicacy – you’ll find it on menus for up to $350 a pound. The body parts of pangolins are sold to the general public – people actually carry around dried pangolin tongues as good luck charms!! It is absolutely reprehensible! But, because China has pretty much more money than god these days and they are willing to pay anything for their dirty habits, this drives the black market price of pangolins to insane amounts. You won’t find it hard to convince a local in poorer African countries to capture a pangolin for $1,000. This is why poaching is so hard to stop. It takes advantage of the vulnerability of poor locals who are given the impossible choice of letting their family starve vs killing endangered animals.
So how did we come upon one of these magical creatures? I’ve been on the hunt to see one for years. On every safari when guides asks ” so what are you interested in seeing”? I say “a pangolin and lion kills” ….and the color runs out of their face because there is pretty much zero chance of making that happen! On our overland trip, finding a pangolin was my biggest wish. I thought about it before every drive – “hey maybe we’ll see a pangolin today”. We sort of struck out on a lot of the stuff we were expecting to see like amazing lion and leopard kills….but we hit the jackpot on this.
The day didn’t start off great. As a last minute change of plans we had to skip our Chobe camping plans to instead make trip to Vic Falls for some car repairs. To get to Vic Falls from Kasane, you drive through Zambezi National Park. Because it is such a popular tourist destination they’ve built a tarred highway through the center of the park. Most people fly through there at 80 mph….but not us! The defender can’t typically go very fast and on this day Boomie was in particularly bad shape. We were limping along at around 30 mph. We first saw a black sable run across the road not far past the border – which in itself was incredible! That was our first sable sighting and was certainly enough excitement for one day.
But soon after, out of nowhere Garrett shouted…..I couldn’t even understand him but I knew a shout like that meant we had found something cool! I started wildly looking around and then he shouted even louder “PANGOLIN”!!!
Without even thinking, I literally jumped out of the moving car! If that wasn’t ridiculous enough, I was wearing some loose drawstring pants that came undone and fell down mid jump. AND I had on my elephant print “sun protection” face mask. So I’m running down the side of the road with my pants down and an elephant mask on without even knowing who/what/where I’m supposed to go. But then I see the brown blob and confirm with my own eyes that it is in fact a pangolin!!! It is a wonder I didn’t pee my pants out of excitement. I can’t remember ever being this excited/emotional – I even started crying. If you’ve seen the video of Kristen Bell getting to meet a sloth for the first time….its pretty similar to that!
After the initial pure shock and joy of seeing our first pangolin – the immediate biggest concern was that we were literally on the side of a major road. I was terrified someone would see us…then see the pangolin and then get ideas about trying to capture it! We tried to shoo it into the brush to hide itself. This wasn’t easy because a pangolin’s defense is to curl up like a rolly poly and just sit there. We were really lucky that after a few minutes he decided to slowly crawl towards the trees.
This is when things got really amazing. We were able to just sit there with him for hours! At first I was so terrified to get close or to touch him because I didn’t want to stress him out. Pangolins are well known to die in captivity due to stress and the last thing I wanted to do was hurt him!!! They can also emit a foul spray similar to a skunk….but I was totally willing to endure that!
The pangolin mostly sat still with his head buried in the ground, but every so often he would slowly lift his head up and look at me with the most innocent puppy dog eyes you can imagine. We would make eye contact and I swear I felt like I could communicate with him.
Watching him walk was my favorite because he marched like a little raptor! His thick legs support a smaller upper body with tiny hands and huge claws. It is like nothing I’ve ever seen!
We finally got up the courage to pet him and Garrett even picked him up! He was quite heavy and I was too scared I would drop him so I didn’t partake. He moved to under a bush and I crawled under to lay next to him. I could have sat there forever just watching him. We were there for so long that the sun started to set and we had to worry about the potential of someone pulling over to check on our car/jack our car. So we decided that it was time to say goodbye.
As a final farewell the pangolin gave us the best show of all. He started snacking on some ants with his tongue! Pangolins have no teeth so they don’t actually have mouths. Their tongues are attached to their sternum so they pull food directly into their stomachs which are lined with spines that help digest. They also ingest small stones which accumulate in their stomachs to grind up the ants they eat. Their tongues are about 5mm wide and can be up to 40 cm long! He whipped his tongue around with amazing dexterity and just looked so happy as he ate. I was most pleased that he had grown comfortable enough around me to relax and start eating. We were 100% best friends!
Saying goodbye was devastating. I obviously cried. We both knew this was pretty much a once in a lifetime thing and that was most probably the last pangolin we would ever see in the wild. I just couldn’t believe that we had been lucky enough to find him. And the reason we did find him is that we were driving our slow clunky defender that side tracked us to Vic Falls for repairs on that particular day!
I have always loved animals to a very very extreme amount. If money/reality were not issues, I would have most definitely been a zoologist and studied rare endangered animals. This was my childhood dream. I had a library of World Wildlife Fund binders filled with pages about all the endangered animals of different regions of the world. Who would have thought that by becoming a dermatologist, I would get the chance to move to Africa and experience first hand encounters with so many of the animals I grew up dreaming about. To say I feel lucky, privileged, grateful is an understatement!