It was precisely to the day the middle of winter, and it was freezing. I set out with my trusted tracker, David, for a morning game drive with guests from Germany, Italy and South Africa. Though there were diverse cultures and languages aboard the vehicle, everyone wanted to see “something special”. As a field guide or ranger for five years, I understand that “something special” is interpreted differently by each person.
Quickly, there was consensus that finding the big male lion, Madoda Ngala, would certainly qualify as something special – he is the King of Kapama and extremely elusive. So with great enthusiasm, we set off to where his tracks were last seen. Two hours later, we were still searching, and I was growing doubtful we’d find Madoda Ngala that day.
“Let’s stop for hot chocolate and biscuits,” I said to my guests – but before they could answer, I heard the distinct and frantic alarm call of an impala. It wasn’t far away either. We decided to postpone drinking hot chocolate and investigate the impala distress calls. A pride of five sub-adult lions was the reason for the impala’s alarm – which is a great sighting, but not the “something special” we were after.
Then I noticed that the lions were not the least bit interested in the noisy impala. Their inexperienced hunting skills and the alert impala meant that a kill was unlikely, anyway. Yet the lions were very distracted by something else. One puzzled-looking lion was playing with a ball in the grass. It wasn’t a ball at all, though, but a rolled-up pangolin – one of the rarest and most elusive animals of the African bush.
It’s scientific name is Manis Temminckii, and the small mammal’s body is completely covered by interlocking scales made of keratin. These scales also easily make up 20% of the animal’s weight. This rare and magnificent animal is very seldom seen, and then certainly not in the grasp of a lion.
I can only guess that the pangolin must have come across the lions, and as soon as it detected the possible threat, it rolled itself into a perfectly formed ball, protected by its armour-like scales. This armour is formidable and impenetrable to the lions’ claws and teeth. More than anything, the young lions were intrigued by this bizarre ball of scales, and seemed to be trying to figure out what exactly this animal was.
It wasn’t long before the young lions lost interest and wandered off into the bush, dumbfounded by their morning encounter. The small pangolin had outwitted a pride of five lions, and when they left, it quickly unrolled itself and sauntered off into the nearby bush with the characteristic sound of its scales rubbing against each other, like armour plating in motion.
Neither David nor I could believe this incredible sighting. I quickly explained to my guests that this rare sighting of a pangolin was without doubt the “something special” of the day – but seeing lions play with a pangolin is a sighting so unique it defies description. Most game rangers, after a lifetime in the bush, will never be privileged to see such an encounter between two species. Many will never even see a pangolin. Then it was time for hot chocolate and biscuits – and plenty of excited conversation.
Written by Jeffrey Mmadi – Buffalo Camp Ranger
Edited by Keri Harvey