Happy World Pangolin Day!
Except it’s not World Pangolin Day. It was. About a week ago. On the 17th of February. But that’s how long it takes to upload a blog article on the WordPress app. Thanks WordPress!
But, I kind of love that I’m posting this after the fact. Because like Valentines Day and Easter and Thanksgiving and all of those other days that are meant to make you think of something really important for just one day, there actually shouldn’t be just one day. We should be celebrating pangolins and partners and pilgrims and pancakes every single day. Right?
Anyway, on with the story. And it’s about pangolins. So hold on Little Safariosophers and turn your aircon up, wrap a scarf around your neck and imagine you’re with me on a cold June afternoon safari…
I’ve just pulled in to a leopard sighting. It’s not just any leopard sighting either. Two big leopard brothers are up in a tree, just above our heads, sharing a kill – incredible by any safari standard. I position the Land Rover in a great spot below the tree and switch off the engine.
“Wow…” I find myself saying. Because what else do you say when you’ve just been dropped into an experience like that? Safari is all about those moments. The ones you never could have anticipated five minutes ago. But somewhere else on the reserve another guide was having one of those moments too and my radio suddenly came to life.
Radio dude: “Um… You guys won’t believe this. I have a Pangolin here.”
I had waited my entire career to hear those words or better yet, to utter them for myself. And it was happening. Right now. Under these leopards.
When Radio Dude went on to announce the location, my heart stopped. I didn’t know the reserve well just yet, but I knew that I was close. I was probably the closest person. Me. And I was sitting under a tree full of leopards and my guests were just beginning to settle into it. What should have been a dilemma, turned out not to be.
“We have to go.” I said. I remember saying it flatly and without much emotion. My little pangolin-obsessed brain couldn’t deal with what was happening. “Just trust me.”
Now this is where I got lucky. I had awesome guests. Really awesome guests who didn’t question a thing. And even though I never tell my people where I’m going, their attitude to the news was like, ‘cool, another adventure!’ This is when most would point up at the tree and say, “but… but… but…”
And with a flick of the ignition, the leopards were in our past. The next few minutes were totally surreal. I was driving to a pangolin. I didn’t for a moment let myself believe it would still be there, even though pangolins aren’t known for their speed and agility. It would be gone. Something would happen and it would be gone. No pangolin. But what if? What if it was still there? What if after all these years…?
“Is it really still there?” I asked on the radio as I approached the spot.
Radio Dude laughed. “Yeah, keep coming.”
Oh my Moose.
The best moment of the entire experience wasn’t the moment I pulled up alongside the pangolin and laid eyes on this magical creature for the first time, it was when one of my guests said, ‘wow, is that a pangolin?!’ You don’t expect American college kids to get it. And they did. They knew. And I got to share this with them. Love.
The next fifteen minutes kind of went by in a blur. My teary eyes didn’t help. The pangolin was cool, showing us total indifference. Just how I always wanted a pangolin to be, if that makes any sense.
And that’s my story. I’ve seen a pangolin. Just one. And I don’t expect to see one again.
Why the pangolin? What makes it that special?
Well it’s rare. Very very rare. Their population density is low to begin with, even though they’re spread out all over Southern Africa. It’s a miracle that they even find each other to make pangolin babies. Sometimes they don’t.
And sometimes they don’t because the pangolin is one of the most poached and trafficked animals on the planet. Like rhino horn, the pangolin’s scales are used in fake medicine and as ghastly ornaments. Pangolin flesh is also eaten by monstrous individuals who consider it a delicacy. Ew.
Unlike the massive rhino, the pangolin is almost defenseless. It curls up into a scaly ball when threatened, which helps them in the face of curious lions or leopards, but evolution didn’t anticipate greedy humans, and a pangolin’s go-to defense strategy is no match for us. Since 2011, it’s thought that more than 10,000 pangolins have been slaughtered. 10,000! And in reality, it’s probably a lot more. Pangolins are going extinct quickly. It doesn’t help at all that most of us have never heard of them.
There are lovely people at places like pangolins.org and the African Pangolin Working Group, who are trying hard to give us all a pango- ducation. Pangolin-ducation? Nope, that didn’t work. But if we don’t tell the world about pangolins soon, they’ll be gone before most of us ever had the chance to get to know them. That’s an unbearable shame.
So let’s get acquainted with these quirky little animals with the crazy scales and the insanely long tongues. The ones who run about bizarrely on their hind legs, gobbling up zillions of ants and termites. I love that I share my planet, and indeed my mammalian ancestry with something that fabulous and eccentric. And you should too.
So try and tell the next person you see about pangolins, even if it’s going to make you look really weird. The pangolins need you to be weird.