Pangolin Guardians: Safeguarding Africa's Scaly Mammals

Very few people know what a pangolin is; fewer still (including some of Africa’s best guides) have seen one. But - take it from us - these quirky-looking beasts are absolute ninjas.

Found across large swathes of Africa and Asia, the pangolin is a solitary and mostly nocturnal creature that ranges in size from the average domestic cat to whoppers of over four feet long.

Also known as scaly anteaters, these unique mammals are covered in large super-tough scales made of keratin. When startled, a pangolin curls into a tight ball leaving just its tail - also made of tough sharp scales - to lash out at predators. These armour-plated balls then release a hideous - but highly effective - stench from glands at the base of their tails, which few predators are willing to hang around for. They’ve been known to see-off hyena, leopard and lion: taking a pop at a pangolin is ill-advised.

When startled, a pangolin curls into a tight ball leaving just its tail - also made of tough sharp scales - to lash out at predators

These clever creatures have powerful front claws that demolish ant and termite mounds, long snouts and even longer tongues to lap up their lunch, and an incredible ability to shut their nose as an anti-ant measure. Genius.

Very sadly, pangolins are critically-endangered. They are the most trafficked mammal in the world (both for their meat and their scales) and their numbers are rapidly declining year on year.

To give you a sense of the horrific scale of this illegal pangolin trade, in just one week in April 2019 two 14-tonne shipments of pangolin scales - from some 72,000 Nigerian pangolins - were seized in Singapore. While over one million pangolins were estimated to have been removed from the wild from across the African continent between 2010 and 2013.

A pangolin spotted in the Mara on a recent Africa Born Safari ©Oliver Nicklin

Pangolin Protectors

But there is hope. Across Africa, brilliant teams of clever scientists and conservationists are working their socks off to help keep our pangolins safe and they are making excellent progress. The Pangolin Project - based in Kenya - is one such initiative founded by our great friend, Dr Claire Okell.

The Pangolin Project is a non-profit organisation dedicated to securing a future for African Pangolins in the landscapes where they live. Working in partnership with communities and wildlife rangers, their raison d’etre is to identify, conserve and better understand local pangolin populations and use this science to develop strategies to protect them. Collaboration is the key to conservation success.

Pangolin scales are made or keratin, the same protein that forms human hair, nails and animal claws.

One of their current projects, the Mara Pangolin Initiative, is not far from Africa Born’s Sand River mobile camp. And - testament to Claire and her team’s fantastic work - this is the spot where Sam saw his one and only pangolin in December 2022!

So if you fancy your chances at spotting one of these scaly wonders, our Sand River mobile camp is the one for you. If you would like to find out more about The Pangolin Project and how you can help, head over to their website.

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