The Lion and the Penguin

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And we are back…with a new series of guest ranger blogs from professional safari field guide Brett Horley. I had the pleasure of meeting Brett earlier this year when he was our ranger in the Timbavati at Walker’s River Camp (more on that story coming soon). Brett is a hugely experienced field guide and has worked all around Southern Africa. Not surprising that he has some weird and wonderful sightings to share. Read more on his latest exploits in the Kalahari here…

Guests often ask what are the best sightings you have ever had? Rare, exciting, scary. As the rare and unusual go, this one was right there at the top. The name Pangolin is derived from the Malay word pen-goling meaning “the roller” due to its habit of rolling up in a ball as a defensive mechanism. The upper body parts, legs, tail and snout are covered in scales made up mostly out of keratin. When rolled up Pangolin’s resemble a cross between an artichoke and a soccer ball On this day in the Kalahari, nine young lions took this Pangolin for a soccer ball. Possibly these young lions had never come across this unusual little creature before. Mom certainly had, as she slept in the shade, utterly disinterested the entire time. She is an experienced adult lioness and she knows these artichokes don’t peel open easily!

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We had gone on game drive straight from the Tswalu airstrip. Our guests, the Worley’s (cool surname!) had come from the Sabi Sand Game Reserve where they were very fortunate and had really excellent sightings of loads of big game species. It wasn’t going to be easy to impress! But this was was more of an introductory drive to really take in the amazing landscape and hopefully see some different antelope species. After an hour of not seeing a living, moving organism, it was getting a bit quiet. Me, saying “Look how beautiful it is” for the third time in an hour just wasn’t cutting it.

So when Jacob’s hand went up and he immediately jumped off to investigate some Lion tracks, I knew the tracks were probably worth following. The pride had walked through the area in the early morning but it was now about 15h00 and Kalahari Lions can walk. But we decided to follow the tracks for a while and see if anything interesting happened. I was actually explaining to the guests that if we didn’t find anything in the next couple of minutes we would carry on in a different direction, when I spotted a Lion moving in the grass a 100m or so off the road. Much excitement and relief! It’s always fun tracking and finding animals and it’s a really rewarding feeling when you find them.

So we were all excited even if the Lions were just going to be sleeping in the shade. As we approached slowly off the road, Jacob exclaimed something excitedly but I couldn’t quite hear what he said. The guests heard “the Lions have got a Penguin!” On the second exclamation, I realized he was saying “the Lions have got a Pangolin!” I couldn’t believe it! But I also couldn’t see anything. The guests still thought he had said Penguin. Who’s heard of a Pangolin anyway! Well I then saw it, the Lions were trying to pry open a rolled up Pangolin! What a crazy, unusual sighting, something I’ve always wanted to see. It is rare! It was great! To watch these young Lions living and learning, and to see this amazing creature come out unscathed. It was awesome.

Maybe one of those sightings I’ll never have again. Pangolins are usually shy and not very abundant. Their major threat being demand for body parts for traditional medicine both in Africa and in Asia. Pangolins’ also get killed by electric fences, unfortunately rolling up in a ball is not a good defence mechanism against any of mans’ threats! But against natural predators it is very useful and usually works. We watched these Lions for almost an hour as they tried to ply the ball of scales open. They clawed, bit, scratched and pulled but with no success in penetrating anything. They stood on it, fought over ownership of it and eventually after a long time they got bored of it.

At Tswalu Kalahari Reserve there is research being done on the Pangolins and once the Lions had left, the experts stepped in. They measured, weighed and sexed the animal and took DNA samples. This was the largest and heaviest individual found so far in the area. He weighed in at 12,5kg and his size and experience certainly helped him in his encounter with the Lions. The researchers also noted no physical signs of his playtime with the Lions either. This is really one of the very few terrestrial African mammals who can defend themselves against Lions. What a cool creature! The Pangolin.

If you would like to visit the Kalahari to see these unusual creatures, then try our Tswalu 4 Night Safari promotion. Includes free return flights from Cape Town and various other amazing value adds.

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