The Kruger National Park, in South Africa, is one of my favourite places on Earth. Its landscapes are vast, its wildlife is abundant and varied, and it is one of the few great African reserves which can be explored both independently and cheaply. But mostly, I love this wild expanse because, very occasionally, it throws up something so unexpected it nearly knocks you over backwards.

It was mid-February 2016, and I had already been in the park for a month. I had spent the previous evening with an enchanting pack of endangered African wild dogs, and I set out from camp at 5.30am to try to relocate them. For around an hour I trundled west along the tarred road that links the park’s largest camp, Skukuza, to the popular entry gate at Phabeni. But there was no sign of the charismatic canines.

Up ahead, a vehicle had stopped by the roadside. It was a behemothic beast of a bus; one of those great hulking monsters that ferries tour groups to the park from Johannesburg. This particular one was loaded with Chinese tourists; they had clearly just arrived, and I assumed they were watching something common: zebra, giraffe, or perhaps impala.

I was ready to turn around, when something inconceivable unexpectedly appeared. It seemed scarcely real, and I had never imagined that such an encounter could be possible. I was so overwhelmed with shock and incredulity that I would have needed to sit down immediately, were I not already comfortably positioned in the driver’s seat of my Chevrolet Spark Lite.

For there, right by the bus’s front wheel, was the most mythical of mammals. Looking for all the world like an enormous perambulating pinecone, it was in fact a pangolin! Now, in broad daylight and just yards from my window, this armour-plated ant-eater was casually rooting around on the roadside. Professional guides can go for years, or even whole careers, without even a glimpse of this elusive species. With other rarities, like wild dogs, diligent and dedicated exploration is sure to yield an eventual sighting. Pangolins aren’t like that; you can’t earn an audience with a pangolin. The only way of seeing one is by sheer, dumb, undeserved, outrageous, wondrous good fortune.

That I was, in that moment, the unworthy recipient of such natural benevolence was still sinking in. My jaw seemed somehow to have migrated most of the way to the ground, and the rest of me sat transfixed and bewildered by this unrealistic creature. By now the pangolin was moving into the deeper bush, and as some of my peripheral senses began to return I finally thought to reach for my camera; I fired off a few record shots, before looking back at the Chinese tourists packed into the bus above me.

What I saw was a scene of absolute apathy. Most passengers stared listlessly into the middle distance (or the screen on their laps). Those who did bother to glance down at the scaly miracle below did so almost with disdain. If they knew what it was, they didn’t seem to care; it certainly wasn’t something interesting. I caught their driver’s eye and gesticulated enthusiastically, hoping for some acknowledgement of our improbable shared experience. But he simply shrugged, and drove off.

As he did so, I was suddenly struck by the irony of what I had just witnessed. Pangolins have become the world’s most trafficked mammal, largely due to demand for their scales from China. But even these ecotourists showed scant interest in a wild, living, breathing pangolin. I wondered; if some of the most ecologically-committed citizens are either oblivious or impervious to the plight of the pangolin, what hope do we have of stopping those who promote and perpetrate the illegal trade?

Thankfully, African pangolins have so far escaped the mass destruction exacted upon their Asian relatives. But as numbers of the latter group dwindle, the illegal wildlife trade is turning its ugly gaze to Africa. The Kruger knows well the difficulty of resisting the ravenous attentions of poachers and their paymasters; thousands of rhinos have been slaughtered here to satisfy another unnecessary obsession with keratin. When rangers are powerless to defend an animal whose butchered carcass is visible from a helicopter, the enforcement of protection for pangolins seems futile.

But my experience did present a glimmer of hope. Millions of Chinese ecotourists now visit Africa every year; if these people, who have a demonstrated interest in nature, can get on board with pangolin conservation, they could help turn the tide against the trade.

An audience with a pangolin should be a cause for wild celebration. I will always treasure my own extraordinary encounter, and hope they will be around to astonish visitors to the Kruger long into the future.

About the Entry

Ben Chapple

I’m a naturalist who’s been lucky enough to travel to some of the most spectacular wild places on Earth, although I have a particular love of Africa. I have a degree in Zoology, and recently finished a Masters, during which I researched hunting behaviour in African wild dogs. I have a real passion for science and nature communication, and currently work in ecotourism, through which I hope to increase awareness of our amazing and threatened natural world.

  • Site name | benaturalist
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  • Why should someone visit your site? My site draws on some of my amazing experiences with wildlife and wild places to tell stories about science and conservation. I write about things from across the natural world that fascinate, concern and captivate me!
  • Entry TitleThe People and the Pangolin
  • Entry Number | 86

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