Research | Feb 2024


Pangolin walking on the red Tswalu sand

Tswalu Kalahari Reserve is one of Africa’s great conservation stories sustained by luxury nature-based tourism. Guided by a vision to conserve and restore the biodiversity of one of the largest remaining tracts of wilderness in South Africa, The Tswalu Foundation supports multiple studies that have the potential to reveal fascinating aspects of the reserve’s ecology and its remarkable biodiversity. Guests, in turn, have exclusive access to this untrammelled wilderness with the opportunity to have remarkable wildlife encounters with some of Africa’s most elusive species. Just by choosing Tswalu, our guests become part of our bold, regenerative conservation vision.


Pangolin research by the Tswalu Foundation


One such species is the Temminck’s pangolin, one of the world’s most shy and elusive mammals. Pangolin research has become synonymous with Tswalu as scientists work to understand the impact of environmental changes in the face of climate change on these scaly anteaters.

Resident assistant ecologist Dr Wendy Panaino has been studying Temminck’s pangolins on the reserve for over eight years and wrote her thesis on their thermal biology, diet, and behaviour. University of the Witwatersrand student Daniel Rossouw is currently focused on the functional role that pangolins play in the environment for his dissertation.


Pangolin researchers, Wendy & Daniel


Introducing guests to pangolin research

Active mainly at night, pangolins are challenging to find. Many of Tswalu’s guests arrive with the knowledge that these threatened mammals are both rare and hard to find but they still yearn to see a pangolin in the wild, even if it’s to spend a few precious moments in its presence. While not every guest will be lucky enough to spot one on a game drive or a walk, everyone is welcome to spend time in the field with someone like Daniel Rossouw, learning about pangolins and observing the painstaking process of collecting data that will help him answer questions about the ecosystem services they provide. Besides highlighting the contribution and value of pangolins to the Kalahari ecosystem, Daniel hopes to make a case for the pangolin’s conservation status.


Tracking pangolin outside a burrow


“I am happy to meet and engage with guests,” says Daniel. “Generally, I’ll do an introduction to my project and guests can observe my sampling efforts. Pangolin observations are usually late in the evenings – sometimes past midnight. During the summer months, Tswalu’s pangolins are completely nocturnal and veld conditions are dominated by tall grasses. If you are patient and quiet you may catch a glimpse of one as it moves across a more open area, but seeing the pangolin is never guaranteed,” explains Daniel.

Tswalu’s guides and trackers often come across tracks on the road and relay this information to Daniel, who follows up and attempts to find the pangolin or a potential burrow that it’s using. He also goes out with the trackers whenever he can to tap into their expertise.


The challenges of studying pangolins in the wild

From a researcher’s perspective, Dr Panaino describes pangolins as incredibly difficult to keep track of. “Populations fluctuate as conditions change. In a year of higher than usual rainfall, dense vegetation makes it challenging to spot pangolins or their tracks, and more difficult to follow their tracks. They are predominantly nocturnal and shy – many times, I have walked right past a pangolin without even knowing it was there. Their food resources dictate the time of day they are active, plus they walk impressively large distances when they want to. Even with technology, they may move out of range or even leave the reserve as part of natural dispersal or movement and we may lose track of them. They naturally occur in low population densities, making the encounter rate low to start with, and they are only active for about four to eight hours each day, so the window to gather ecological data during their active phase is narrow. Add to this changing conditions will influence when they’re active and you could miss that window entirely! Some pangolins naturally occur in areas that are tricky for us to access, like the Korannaberg hills where the geography makes it challenging to pick up a signal. Technology is also not perfect, and transmitters occasionally fail or fall off.”


One thing is clear, pangolins have earned their elusive reputation. The inherent challenges of keeping tabs on these creatures reinforce the value and importance of long-term studies and privately protected areas, like Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, where with the support of the Tswalu Foundation research helps to inform conservation decisions. 


“If I had ended my PhD fieldwork after one year, I would have missed a big chunk of the story,” explains Dr Panaino. “Temperature, rainfall and insect abundance are a few of the conditions that fluctuate from one year to the next. Animal behaviour naturally changes in response to that. Because of the effect of seasonal changes on the behaviour of pangolins, the true value lies in long-term research, for example where you can compare several consecutive summers or winters. Imagine having two consecutive summers with very similar temperatures and rainfall, yet the pangolins behave very differently – this tells us that something else may be driving pangolin behaviour and only this long-term research will reveal these little secrets.”


Wendy in the field tracking pangolin


Role of the Tswalu Foundation

The Tswalu Foundation supports multiple studies, like Daniel’s, that have the potential to reveal fascinating aspects of the reserve’s ecology and its remarkable biodiversity. Throughout the year, Dedeben Research Centre, the Tswalu Foundation’s headquarters on the reserve, hosts teams of scientists and students from all over the world, a dynamic, collaborative community committed to pooling their experience while gathering data in their areas of expertise. Guests are invited to learn more about projects that interest them by observing the work of whichever research teams are on location, adding an exciting dimension to an already varied safari. Whether the focus is pangolins or puff adders, butterflies or cheetahs, these exclusive opportunities to see research in action provide insight into the depth of knowledge and experience that informs Tswalu’s sustainable conservation vision to leave the world better than how we found it.


Research projects underway at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve


How you can make a difference by supporting the research behind conservation

The viability of research supported and managed by the Tswalu Foundation is impacted by the generosity of our guests. Find out how you can make a difference by donating here.


Images by Marcus Westberg, Trevor Kleyn and Tswalu Foundation.