Nature’s holy grail

Leading wildlife experts share what they love most about the endearing and endangered pangolin…

Even the most seasoned safari veteran who has “seen it all” still holds onto a wildlife bucket list of those mysterious species or specific once-in-a-lifetime sightings that have managed to evade their safari experiences to-date.

I personally have yet to witness an aardvark, mountain gorilla and honey badger (to name a few), and despite following the footsteps of the Great Migration, twice, I still haven’t witnessed one of those world-famous, nail-biting river crossings.

Perhaps the ultimate holy grail of many a wildlife bucket list is the ever-elusive, globally threatened and widely misunderstood pangolin. Hunted for the very scales that are meant to protect it from harm, the loveable pangolin faces an uncertain future.

Ask the experts

In the lead-up to World Pangolin Day on 20 February, we have an expert panel of ecologists, conservationists, wildlife experts and rehabilitation specialists lined up for a two-part live discussion on all things pangolin.

Both of these live conversations are free to join and will be broadcast via our &Beyond YouTube and Facebook platforms on the 11th and 18th of February. There will be ample time during each session to ask the experts questions, so mark your calendars and be sure to tune in.

Part 1

11 February 2021

What is a pangolin and why should we care?

Part 2

18 February 2021

A pangolin’s journey from rescue to release.

What’s not to love?

Ahead of these panel discussions, and coupled with the fact that (1) pangolins are definitely my spirit animal, and (2) not everyone actually knows what a pangolin is, I recently published an article about my favourite 12 reasons to love the pangolin.

This is a species that has roamed the earth for more than 80 million (!) years, yet many people have never even heard of the pangolin, let alone seen one. In order to help save this species from the brink of global extinction, widespread awareness, understanding and education are essential.

We protect what we love, so I asked a few of our World Pangolin Day panellists to share what they personally love about the pangolin. Albeit a difficult question for pangolin lovers to summarise in short, there are countless curious characteristic and loveable traits that make the rather antisocial pangolin a firm favourite among wildlife lovers.

Long may this remarkable species roam the earth, freely and without harm, and may we continue to celebrate their existence and eccentricities for many more World Pangolin Days to come.

Prof. Ray Jansen

Chairman, African Pangolin Working Group

Read Ray’s quote

“Pangolins are likely the most fascinating creatures I have and likely will ever encounter. A mammal covered in extremely hard scales, that can literally not open its mouth, that has no teeth, but just a small space for a tongue to extend out almost the same length of its body. These charismatic, gentle, peaceful and silent creatures are bewitching and being in their presence is almost spellbinding. It is such an honour and privilege to be able to work with them; a truly humbling experience I cherish.”

Nicci Wright

Wildlife Rehabilitation Specialist

Read Nicci’s quote

“Pangolins are the most unique creatures I know. They are the only scaled mammal and have been on the planet for 84 million years. They have evolved through millions of years and are perfectly adapted to do what they do — eat ants, live in holes and protect themselves by rolling in a tight ball, covered in scaly armour. Pangolins are quiet and secretive, which means that little is known about them. They are revered among many African tribes because they are so uniquely special, almost mystical in their form, which elevates them to the realm of myths and legends. Working with them every day, I truly love their unique ecology and emotional sensitivity and find the experiences I have had with them to be both touching and humbling — a great honour, indeed.”

Simon Naylor

Reserve Manager, Phinda Private Game Reserve

Read Simon’s quote

“Personally, I love pangolins because they are unlike any other creature and have existed on the planet for 80+ million years. They deserve our attention, not to mention every effort and expense that go into protecting them. The individuals that are rescued out the illegal wildlife trade and released back into the wild deserve a second chance. Destined for death, these lucky pangolins get a new lease on life and we can buck the trend to repopulate a species into an area where they have recently gone extinct. In a world of doom and gloom and so much negativity, especially in the natural world where hundreds of species go extinct daily, Phinda’s pangolin reintroduction programme (in partnership with the African Pangolin Working Group) is a good news story and feel-good project. Very little is known about these secretive animals, so it also gives us an opportunity, as conservationists, to understand and learn more about the pangolin’s habits, ecology and livelihood.”

Charli de Vos

Ecological Monitor, Phinda Private Game Reserve

Read Charli’s quote

“In biology, we were told that when an animal faces a stressful situation it will display one of two behaviours: fight or flee. A pangolin, however, does not use the fight-or-flee-response, but instead opts for sneaky option number 3: freeze. It will curl up into a ball or lie flat on its stomach; exposing only its epidermal “armour” of overlapping scales — the only mammal to possess such an armour. For a researcher, like myself, pangolins are immensely fascinating, as there is so little known about them. We are constantly asking new questions about their ecology, to which we are hoping to be able to formulate answers. Their shy and elusive nature is the main reason why they are so understudied, which presents us with a new set of challenges to develop methods for studying pangolins. So far, the main thing we have learned is that when it comes to pangolins, expect the unexpected; and even still we are astonished by their uniqueness.”

Bruce Young

Director, Producer and Narrator of the Eye of the Pangolin wildlife documentary

Read Bruce’s quote

“I have two teenage sons — picky eaters, stubborn, busy when they’re engaged in something, bone idle when they’re not, fun-loving, adorable and unbelievably aggravating in the same instant, both tough and vulnerable. And funny! OMG, they do make me laugh. So you can see why I completely fell in love with pangolins when I met my first little guy in Ghana a few years ago. What a privilege — to have both children and pangolins in my life! And the thought of losing either? Absolutely devastating — on both a personal and a spiritual level.”

Priyan Perera

Senior Lecturer, University of Sri Jayewardenepura & IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group

Read Priyan’s quote

“It’s natural that most humans are attracted to charismatic species. But as they say, ‘the beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and something attractive for someone may be grotesque for another. For many people, pangolins are mysterious and strange-looking mammals that no one knows much about. This mysterious and elusive nature of Indian pangolins is what got me interested in digging into their world. Indian pangolins are truly amazing, timid and innocent, yet tough and have adapted to survive in a variety of environments. There are so many secrets yet to be unwound about the Indian pangolins in Sri Lanka.”

Lisa Hywood

Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Tikki Hywood Foundation in Zimbabwe

Read Lisa’s quote

“Working with pangolins, it’s not a job, it’s like breathing—it’s all you think about. It’s an intensely personal experience, every single time you rescue a new animal. So even though we currently have a number of pangolins in our care, and we’ve rescued 250 in the past few years, with every rescued pangolin, that new creature that has come to you to begin its journey back to where it rightfully belongs, be it for an hour, half an hour, 20 minutes, this journey becomes another deeply personal experience, for which I’m extremely grateful.”

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