Pangolin research at Tswalu
The ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) is a charismatic but threatened mammal found on Tswalu. It also happens to be the subject of some fascinating research.
Valery Phakoago is doing her PhD on the dispersal of ground pangolins (Smutsia temminckii) at Tswalu, where the use of telemetry is vital for keeping track of study animals. Telemetry is “an automated communications process by which measurements and other data are collected at remote or inaccessible points and transmitted to receiving equipment for monitoring.” (Wikipedia)
Valery also makes use of camera traps which are placed outside pangolin burrows to record their time of emergence and return. They are placed close to the entrance because pangolins tend to exit their burrows from the sides and are often not caught on cameras placed further away.
GPSing pangolin burrows provides important information about movements within their home ranges, and also ensures that camera traps can be recollected.
Collecting pangolin scat (faecal dropping) samples provides a non-invasive method for assessing their diet. Pangolins will often dig a small hole, defecate inside it and drag their tails over the faeces to conceal it.
Wendy Panaino is a researcher from the University of the Witwatersrand who is also doing research on pangolins at Tswalu.
Says Wendy: “Little is known about how pangolins might cope with the direct (heat) and indirect (prey availability) effects of a changing climate, and so I am currently investigating the body temperature, diet, and activity patterns of free-living ground pangolins in a semi-arid environment.
She explains that there are eight species of pangolin in the world, four in Asia and four in Africa. The four Asian species are listed as endangered on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of endangered species. Of the four species, two are very near extinction due to their illegal trade for medicinal use and bushmeat. The four African species are listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List, also threatened by illegal trade. ‘The species that occurs in eastern and southern Africa, Temminck’s ground pangolin, is not as threatened, but I fear that, at the rate that the other seven species are declining, this species will soon become a target.
“Climate change models predict that the arid areas of Africa will become hotter and drier, and if pangolins or their prey are not able to adapt in time to these changes, they face the risk of extinction. Through the use of VHF telemetry technology, I have been able to track and follow wild pangolins at Tswalu for the past few years. Along with being able to quantify core body temperature of the pangolins, I have been able to document several interesting behaviours, dietary patterns and movements. This study will provide insights into the life of pangolins in a semi-arid environment at a regional scale, which will hopefully contribute to the pieces of the bigger puzzle of global pangolin conservation.”
Wendy says that one needs to be conscious of the way you approach a pangolin in the wild. “Each pangolin may behave differently, depending on its experience with people. Younger pangolins will often roll into a ball when people approach and will remain that way for a long time. At a pangolin sighting, it is important to let the animal make its own decisions on where it wants to go. We should not crowd around the animal, but rather stand behind it at all times so that it can move freely wherever it wants, reducing the potential stress factor. If the animal keeps trying to walk away from you, or keeps retreating to bushes to hide, or is curled into a ball, we should rather stand back, remain quiet and wait for it to become comfortable enough to move on and forage. The way of telling whether a pangolin is not stressed, is if it is comfortable enough to eat in front of you.”
The Tswalu Foundation
The research being conducted on ground pangolins at Tswalu is one of the projects of the Tswalu Foundation.
The Foundation facilitates a broad range of research undertaken on Tswalu Kalahari Reserve. Its mission is to promote conservation and strengthen an understanding of the semi-arid savanna biome within the southern Kalahari. The Foundation also presents opportunities for guests to interact with researchers in the field, while providing Tswalu Kalahari Reserve with data for management purposes. The Foundation is a crucial component of the Oppenheimer Family’s vision to conserve the Kalahari by restoring the natural environment, re-establishing biological diversity and maintaining the natural ecological processes of the Kalahari.
White-backed vulture conservation
Several breeding nests of white-backed vultures were recently discovered on the reserve for the first time, during BirdLife SA's first audit of Tswalu since becoming South Africa's first Vulture Safe Zone.
When a pangolin sniffed my boot
One of the tagged pangolins became a central character in Leonie’s story. On her very first night, after several hours of following the pangolin’s tracks with the researchers through the dunes to its burrow, she had a once-in-a-lifetime experience.