Certain guest questions, like certain guide jokes, can be considered to be a staple of a visit to the bush. For a guide, watching a zebra go from one side of a road to the other we are overwhelmed by the urge to call out “zebra crossing!” and only very rarely do we successfully repress this urge. In our heads each repetition of the joke is met with raucous laughter accompanied by general agreement that your guide is a sterling human and probably has a decent back-up career as a stand up comic. In reality, the joke is often met with a raised eyebrow, possibly even a roll of the eyes, and if the guide is really lucky a polite titter. Nevertheless, I can assure you it is a joke that never gets old. Similarly, when presented with our equine pals guests’ lips start to twitch, they glance sideways at one another and finally ask the immortal question: “So, are they black with white stripes or white with black stripes?”, quick as a flash our lowveld guides will fire back, “ah but what about the grey stripes?” which are a distinguishing feature of the Plains zebra found in the area. In general this tends to stump guests and we all move on from our guilty game drive giggles to enjoy the animals themselves. Despite this battle of the comic wits zebras are a firm favourite with guests and guides alike and never fail to delight on a drive as we rediscovered on a morning not too long ago…
Here in the bush Autumn has started or, as the Starks would say, ‘Winter is coming…’ Our mornings are misty and there is a definite chill to the air. In practical terms what this means is that we reach a point on the morning drive when Bongi and I spin round in excitement only to discover that the mysterious noise we are investigating is the gurgle of a guest stomach – it is time to stop for coffee. One recent morning, anticipating that the stomach rumble would soon be upon us, we stopped for coffee in an open clearing and, after a quick check that there was nothing lying in wait behind the bushes, we invited the team to come down and stretch their legs. However, we were not the only occupants of the clearing, although we definitely needed some caffeine to get our energy levels up to the standards of those who were sharing it with us! Across the open plain was a scene that proved, beyond a doubt that we were in Africa. We had been joined by a tower of giraffe and a dazzle of zebra – and boy were they active! A couple of giraffe bulls were sizing each other up, whilst being pointedly ignored by the females who were with them, spoiling for a battle over mating rights. Their limelight, however, was stolen soundly by the zebra stallions.
Zebras have a foul temper that they demonstrate with a solid kick and a nasty bite and these stallions were in need of a referee. When zebras fight over mares they have been known to inflict serious wounds on their challengers – and I mean serious, zebras running around sporting half a tail have most likely fallen foul of another zebra stallion rather than pulled off a close escape from a lion! The fights are fast and messy, each stallion lunges to take a bite out of his opponent. There is no gentleman’s agreement here. As we watched the males jumped, snapped and spun; suddenly crashing forwards onto their knees to prevent their opponent biting through their genitals! On foot in the clearing we were connected with the sighting in a way that is hard to achieve in the vehicle. Our hearts were in our mouths and our adrenaline levels spiked as we watched, transfixed, as the battle played out. After an incredible number of near misses one male emerged victorious and chased the vanquished opponent, thankfully with both genitals and tail in tact, from the clearing! Shaking our heads and grateful that our day would be considerably more peaceful we slipped back onto the game viewer and headed for home without a single mention of stripe colours or zebra crossings.
To be well suited as a Field Guide and a Tracker you need to have different parameters on danger. A scream of terror causes a flood of adrenaline in a Field Guide and the overwhelming urge to run to the source clasping a camera in one hand and a snake wrangling kit in the other to see what excitement has been uncovered. Something in the development of our survival instincts went astray. We are drawn to creatures that most humans consider deadly and downright disadvantageous for a long and healthy lifespan.
So, with this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that one morning Bongi and I were chasing around on some fresh cheetah tracks, eyes gleaming at the challenge. Bongi was doing some systematic tracking, out on foot following one track and then the next to find the animals. Whilst I was doing some intuitive tracking, circling the block in the vehicle, checking to see if the tracks emerged and trying to predict what their movements would have been or would be likely to be so we could slip ahead of the coalition of cheetahs and spot them that morning. We covered a few uneventful sides of the block when, BINGO, cat tracks on the road ahead. I stopped the car, gave the guests a few reassuring words and leapt out for a closer look. Not the cheetahs we were following but an even more elusive creature – a female leopard – had been down the road and recently judging by the crispness of the tracks. I followed them for a few metres head down to get a feel of the gait and behaviour of the animal when I felt an ominous prickling on the back of my neck. I froze. Call me superstitious but I was convinced something was watching me. I raised my head to scan around. Leopards love to rely on their excellent camouflage and from the freshness of the tracks it was entirely possible the female was lying somewhere close-by in the bushes watching my every move. I scanned carefully in the bushes on my left, slowly coming round to the road where my eyes met a pair of black pools, lined with silver and typically associated with a swift, anxious and painful death.
A few metres ahead of me, starting to cross the road, was a black mamba, about 3m in length and raised up about 50cm from the ground. The mamba had spread its hood (oh yes they have a hood) and was daring me to come closer. I stood for what felt like an age staring transfixed at the snake before common sense kicked in – I should return to the car and get my camera – what a photo opportunity! I called to the guests to make sure they were enjoying this rare and special sight in the bush and slowly backed towards the vehicle. My movement broke the spell and the extra space relaxed the snake, it turned and slid back towards the bushes. With great excitement we approached it in the game viewer and the serpent climbed a nearby knobthorn gave us all a piercing stare before moving off on its own business once more.
by Derrick Nyathi and Kaizer Mathebula, guide and tracker at Garonga
It was one of those mornings where the bush was alive and bristling with activity. We could barely move without seeing animals.
After a few days of careful tracking, we had found a young female cheetah. We enjoyed a lovely relaxed sighting where she was lying down, looking to all the world like she was fast asleep when, suddenly, her head popped up. With her incredible sense of hearing she had heard something moving through the bush.
Gone was her lazy demeanour as she was up and stalking through the bush in one single movement. To us it was a mystery what she had heard; a cheetah’s hearing is far more acute than a human’s and we could neither see nor hear what she was following. Whatever it was though was clearly something delicious!
Whilst we were following her, she put on a burst of speed and disappeared! And so the search for her began again. We picked up her tracks and then in the background we heard the impalas’ alarm calling so we had our direction and raced off! Unfortunately, as a young cheetah, she was still learning to perfect her hunting technique. She had detected a bachelor herd of impalas, stalked them excellently but had gotten ahead of herself and become exposed.
Like their big cat predators, impalas also have fantastic senses. As an animal that is on everyone’s menu, they have to be constantly on alert and luckily for the males that morning, they had spotted the hungry female cheetah as she approached them. After spotting her they sounded their alarm call, which let both the cheetah and us know that the impalas had seen her and the jig was up!
At this point, the cheetah had no choice but to move off as the noise was likely to draw the attention of other predators. That could be very dangerous for the cheetah because any of those predators entering the scene would see her as competition for food and attack her.
Looking sad that she hadn’t managed to catch herself a tasty breakfast, she skulked off into the bushes to try her luck somewhere else.
In the first of our safari camp stories from Garonga, I’m going to tell you about the rarest of the rare, the world’s most trafficked animal and the veritable golden snitch of the safari-quidditch world (more Harry Potter lingo to follow). That’s right, we’re talking about the pangolin.
Now as big denouements go, I appreciate that this might have just fallen a little flat, almost like Harry Potter’s friend Neville Longbottom when his remembral turns red but still leaves him firmly in the dark as to what it is he has forgotten. Similarly, the pangolin, despite its heady status as the world’s most trafficked animal, remains a fairly unknown creature to most of us.
What is a pangolin? There are eight species of pangolin in the world, with four being found on the African continent, and they occupy their own taxonomic order, Pholidata. Also known as scaly anteaters, they are descended from carnivores and feed exclusively on a diet of ants and termites. They have no teeth, incredibly long sticky tongues, and ears that seal up to prevent those creepy crawlies getting inside!
The name pangolin derives from the animal’s Malaysian name ‘peng-goling’ which means ‘the roller’. Pangolins are covered in tough keratin scales which act very much like armour. If they encounter any danger their first reaction is to roll into a ball with their scales creating impenetrable exterior sphere which they maintain until the danger has passed.
Are there pangolins at Garonga? There is only species of pangolin in South Africa, the Temminck’s ground pangolin or Smutsia temmickii if you want to get technical about it. Garonga has a pretty good record as far as pangolins go. We are fortunate to confirm that there are a minimum of three resident pangolins on the property. So you can imagine my excitement when I started working at Garonga in June 2018 and went twice daily on games drives, being wholly convinced that I was on my way to see my first ever pangolin.
At the start of each drive my tracker and I would confidently announce that we were on our way to find ourselves a pangolin; although I have a sneaking suspicion some of the tracking team might have been humouring me! Yet slowly the days turned into weeks, the weeks into months and, sadly, we had yet to see this elusive animal. This is not necessarily surprising as pangolins are the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the guide’s rainbow. They are infamously tricky to find; there are guides who have spent 20 years working in the bush having never seen this shy and retiring creature.
So when Bongi and I were chasing around after a leopard at the beginning of last October and came across fresh pangolin tracks the excitement was palpable. Well, at least it was for Bongi and I, as the guests’ expressions seemed to suggest they were hoping that after a 10-minute hike through the bush for something a little more showy than a fairly nondescript squashed circle in the red African dust.
For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, Bongi is a member of our tracking team known affectionately as ‘The Man with the Magical Eyes’. So, on another afternoon drive in late October, when Bongi called out “What’s that?”, I chuckled and pulled out my binoculars; if Bongi couldn’t identify whatever it was without them, I certainly wasn’t going to be able to. I asked Bongi where we were looking and started a casual scan of the area. On the tracker seat ahead of me, Bongi began to squint and muttered ‘pangolin’. At that point, I was doing a passable impression of a spinning top – binos firmly glued to my face, calling out “Where are we looking?!”. Then my scan took me to my right where I saw it, or more accurately them. That’s right folks, our first pangolin sighting was also our second pangolin sighting. Right before our eyes was a female carrying her youngster on her back.
Chaos followed! The guests on my vehicle were French and had never heard of pangolins and in the excitement they got a mixed babble of French and English explanations about how incredible and rare it is to see a pangolin. Bongi and I were close to tears. We followed the female with her youngster in the vehicle for a short way and then got out on foot for a closer look. The adult pangolin headed towards a thick clump of grass, tipped her baby off her back and gave us the enormous privilege of sitting with her and her offspring, taking in their presence and sharing in their story. I then got to make, hands down, the coolest radio call in my career “Stations, Sophie is on lock with a mother and baby pangolin – visual 5 out 5”. The radio nearly exploded and there wasn’t a mobile vehicle on the reserve that night that didn’t come to Garonga to see these mythical beasts.
Following an inspection of the scales on the female, we noticed a damaged scale and realised, with mounting excitement, that this was the self-same individual that Sam, another guide at Garonga, had seen the previous year who had been in the perilous situation of being curled tightly in a ball clasped between the claws of one of the younger, more curious, Garonga pride male lions! These animals really are amazingly tough as not only had she emerged relatively unscathed from the encounter she found herself a mate and successfully given birth to a healthy baby. The morning after our encounter there was a suspicious number of vehicles circling that part of the reserve but of mother and baby there was no sign – they had vanished.
Seeing a mother pangolin with a baby in the wild was such an amazing privilege especially bearing in mind how much pressure is being exerted on this species. It is estimated that more than 1 million pangolins have been taken from the wild in the last decade alone. It took until the week before Christmas until we found their tracks again.
Why are they so endangered? Regrettably, pangolins are highly desired for medicinal use both in Africa and internationally. Across Africa, traditional healers use pangolin parts in their treatments, tending to focus on using scales and bones, whilst the meat is used for preparing charms for chiefs or tribal leaders. With 80% of Africa’s population relying on traditional medicine either due to not having access to modern medicine or not trusting it, there is a significant impact on the pangolin population.
Pangolins are a firm favourite in Asian traditional medicine, to such an extent that the two species of pangolin native to China and Vietnam are now listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In Vietnam, pangolins are considered a great delicacy and are smuggled alive into restaurants and then killed at the table to prove their freshness before being cooked and eaten.
Unfortunately, despite the impact on their native pangolin populations, the demand both for the traditional Chinese remedies, and for the pangolin as a delicacy continues. Much of this demand is being met by poaching and smuggling of African pangolin species. Professor Ray Jansen, an ecologist at Tswane University, says that ground pangolins are currently being poached at 10 times the rate of rhinos. Pangolins are very tricky to raise and keep in captivity as they require constant care and, according to some sources, hours of walks daily are necessary just to trigger their digestive juices. This means that to meet the demands described above, the only source of pangolins is from the wild.
Pangolin scales are made of keratin, which is the same substance that makes up our hair and fingernails and, of course, the heavily poached rhino horn. Science has been thoroughly unable to demonstrate any medicinal value in keratin, and certainly not for the myriad treatments for which pangolin parts are prescribed. Studies have, in fact, shown that over-consumption of pangolin scales can lead to liver problems. It is unclear whether the same is true for over-consumption of human fingernails – I suspect it’s been difficult to find willing participants for the latter study!
What can we do to help? First, we must spread the word. People can’t save an animal they’ve never heard of so education is key to the future of the pangolin. The sooner we can win communities over to modern medicine alternatives the sooner we will have a chance at stopping pangolin poaching. Secondly, there are organisations that are already doing great work to help pangolins and, as is often the case with conservation, funding can be scarce and they must turn to the public for support.
Rhino Revolution is a great local charity that opened a pangolin rehabilitation centre in August last year, which was in addition to the existing rhino rescue rehabilitation centre. Since opening the charity, they have received a stunning nine pangolins that were confiscated from poachers, three of whom have already been successfully released into the wild. Three of the pangolins were very sick when they reached the team and continue to need round-the-clock care. The work done by Rhino Revolution is vital if we are to see the survival of these incredible animals.
If you wish to support their work, then please click here to donate from South Africa or anywhere globally – aside from the UK or the Middle East – and here to donate from the UK or the Middle East.
They say old habits die hard and I still find myself leaving the lodge on game drives convinced that this is the drive where we spy a pangolin again. I’m crossing fingers that I’ll have another tale to add to our safari camp stories series.