I can remember the day well due to it being the day before I took my SKS Birds exam! Sitting in my office trying my best to get a few pieces of administration done and carry on with some studying, things were running pretty smoothly. My handheld radio was giving regular snippets of how the morning safari was panning out, and it seemed that it too was running smoothly! A few of the rangers were following 2 separate leopards in the southern portion of Sabi Sabi; there were smatterings of elephant sightings and the lions were on a kill; life was good!
Not listening intently to the radio I went through the syllabus for a rangers exam the following day, but I heard a sudden increase in radio communication and could have sworn I heard the word 'Kwari' used at some stage. That being the shangaan word for a pangolin I thought I must have imagined it; it was broad daylight and warming up, and pangolin had only been spotted twice in the last three and a half years I had guided at Sabi Sabi! So naturally I passed it off as one of our roads being discussed, a road also called 'kwari'!
As I continued on with being an exam student I heard it again, then in quick succession again, so I turned up the radio and sure enough "Mobile's, this madoda ingwe has fumbered from this makulu kwari, mobiles are leaving the ingwe and staying with this kwari!", which translates from broken shangaan and zulu to "Land Rovers, this male leopard has left this large pangolin. Vehicles are leaving the leopard and staying with the pangolin!" I could not believe it! I had spent nearly 6 years in the bush and not even a sniff of a pangolin - I was going there, exam or no exam!!
I dropped everything and sprinted back to get my video camera and my still camera, jumped into my Land Rover and headed off towards the area! I turned the radio right up as I did not want to miss a drop of information on where this mythical creature was. It was far from Bush Lodge and would take a good half an hour to get there. There was a chance it may be lost in that time, but a chance was all I needed!
As I neared the area it was nudging on the end of safari-time and most of the vehicles that had viewed the pangolin were heading back. "Great" I thought. It looked like I was not only going to get to see it but have it all to myself! As I arrived within sight I turned off into the shade and waited for an approach, taking the last minutes to set up my cameras so as not to miss an opportunity to record this. Then the ranger in charge of the sighting called me in. I felt like I was an adolescent teen being allowed to go take my first present from under the Christmas tree; excited but trying to keep my composure and a cool exterior!
The ranger guided me in and pointed to the undergrowth, then he too left. I turned the engine off, sat, and stared at the patch of dead grass, waiting for signs of life! Nothing. "Be patient" I told myself, battling not to wonder if I was looking in the right place. "Be patient". If nothing else, the one thing I have learnt from working in the bush is the rewards associated with being patient: wait long enough and nature will show you. A rustle. The tops of a few grasses moved. I slowly sat upright, taking my chin off my arms resting on the door, and stared. Bit by bit the grasses where I had been staring started to slowly shake and move apart. A small shiny protrusion peeked out from the undergrowth into the direct sun, like a mole after a long winter, and slowly but surely the protrusion grew as an alien materialized out into the open right in front of me! It was like nothing I had ever seen, and no picture does justice to the peculiarity and uniqueness of the pangolin. I could not believe it, a pangolin, in broad daylight, all to myself!
Looking around, the pangolin checked that the coast was clear and headed forward bulldozing its way through the tangle of long grasses, sniffing and scraping periodically as it went. I tried to clamber around the vehicle to get a clear look as it motored forward, not wanting to start the engine and frighten it - but the vegetation was too thick to see it well. So I slowly climbed down from the vehicle and attempted my best ninja-like steps through the dry grass to follow on foot. When the pangolin moved, I moved, hoping its noisy shuffles would mask my quasi-ninja stealth! I could not believe I was walking with a 3 foot long pangolin through the bush, able to photograph and film it at leisure; I was in seventh heaven! The tiny beady eyes would often look in my direction, but then move on, regardless.
At one stage a francolin leaped out in front of us both with an ear piercing shriek, causing the pangolin to quickly roll into its characteristic defensive ball and me to age 3 years on the spot! My gaze had been focused on the pangolin and I had completely forgotten there was a male leopard somewhere in the vicinity! Lowering my heart beat to a more reasonable 130 beats per minute I took the opportunity to take some close ups of the pangolin's scales. I was surprised at how chipped and worn many of the scales were, but seeing as it was the male leopard that found it (as I was later told) and that he had batted it around for a while, it actually didn't surprise me when I thought what the animal must have been through. Also, judging from its size, this individual must have been in its late teens.
After an hour or so of unadulterated one on one viewing, a colleague radioed me to find out if the pangolin was still around. I called him to come along as a number of general staff members also wanted a look at this rough diamond. I left them to it, unable to take the grin off my face, stopping every 5 minutes to have another look at the photos and unable to study for the rest of the day!