Spring 2020 | Kevan Dobbie

Cats outsmarted by a ground pangolin

Early one morning in October, the search for lions was on. Although the morning was still cool, that week we had started enjoying the warmer daytime temperatures that mark the transition to summer.

Our main aim of the morning safari was to locate the most southern pride of lions that had recently introduced three new cubs to the pride. It was not long before we picked up lion tracks! We had been following the tracks for about 15 minutes through a dense block when suddenly we received a radio call that part of the pride had been located up ahead by one of the other trackers. Little did I know that I was about to experience my best sighting ever in my time as a Tswalu guide – a pangolin in the clutches of sub-adult lions. My guests could not believe their luck.

For the three young lions, two males and a female, it was most probably the first time they had come across such a strange creature. Rolled defensively into a tight ball, the pangolin’s hard keratin scales gave it complete protection. Its tail covered its head and tender ventral areas, making it impenetrable.

For the lions the pangolin was a ball with which to play, and the sport went on for the best part of the day. Every time the pangolin uncurled itself in an attempt to escape, one of the lions pounced on it to investigate what it was. Then its defence mechanism would kick in, and it would roll into a ball again. Eventually, it took cover underneath a raisin bush where it waited until the lions lost interest and moved away. It was fascinating to watch such a vulnerable species outsmarting a primary apex predator.

As the mornings heat up, ground pangolins may still be seen returning to their burrows to rest during the extreme heat of the day. Tswalu remains one of the best places in southern Africa to encounter a ground pangolin.

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