Safari guides here will laugh if you ask them to find you a pangolin. Pangolin research projects have been abandoned because the scientists couldn’t locate any study subjects. Sightings are so exceptional that a pangolin’s emergence is said to herald some rare and magical event.
So, imagine our surprise last night when this guy decided to waddle across the road, right in front of our vehicle.
Also known as “scaly anteaters,” pangolins are utterly bizarre creatures. They are extremely specialized insect-eaters. They lack teeth, but have 15-inch tongues that are attached not in the mouth, but down in the abdominal cavity. To raid anthills and termite mounds, pangolins have incredibly long, sharp claws. Unfortunately, these super-cool talons are so cumbersome that pangolins can’t actually use their front paws for walking. They walk hunched over on their hind legs, holding their front feet curled up off the ground to protect their claws. We decided they look a bit like mini-Godzillas wearing some really heavy armor.
Perhaps the pangolin’s most noticeable adaptation is its scales, which cover its body from head to tail. They are made of keratin (like your fingernails) but are deadly-sharp and tough enough to deter most predators. When threatened, pangolins roll up into a scaly ball and wait out the danger. Their scales are supposedly the source of their magic, and are highly prized in some African societies for protection against evil.
Our pangolin meandered across the road, giving us just enough time to recover from total shock before grabbing our cameras. As if to wave goodbye (or maybe to say “stop gawking at me, you crazy stalkers”), it raised its tail and disappeared into the tall grass.
Now, we get to sit back, gloat over our unbelievable sighting, and wait for our magical event.