Miracle Sightings in Kenya’s Masai Mara

A pangolin walking in the grass in the Masai Mara, Kenya
Definitely not the greatest shot in the world but at least I got a capture!

Pangolin! It’s a pangolin! Oh my God, it’s a pangolin!!!

I might as well have said “Pigs are flying! Pigs are flying!” Because until that moment, both were just as unlikely.

Pangolins are one of Africa’s most elusive creatures and rarely seen. I’ve spoken to guides who’ve spent 24/7 in the bush and have never had the pleasure. It’s the kind of sighting that earns your friends’ envy and a slap on the back or a big high-five even though you actually had little to do with it.

Pangolins are bizarre-looking, nocturnal mammals covered in scales that look like large artichoke leaves. When threatened, they roll up into a ball to protect themselves. Remember playing with potato bugs when you were a kid? They’re kind of like that but way bigger and, well, pangolins aren’t insects. They love to eat ants and termites and, unless mating, are solitary creatures. According to Wikipedia, they are the most trafficked mammal in the world. Sigh….

It was a glorious September morning and we were in the Masai Mara near the Tanzanian border. Our guide, Sammy Ngotho, was following our comrades in another Wild Eye land cruiser along a dirt road in the midst of a vast plain. The Serengeti was less than a mile away.

For some reason, when a chance to veer right presented itself, Sammy took it, letting the other car continue on its way.

That decision was the definition of serendipity.

Within less than a minute,  scurrying aimlessly through the grass, its aardvark-like tongue darting in and out,  I saw it. At first I was stymied. What the hell is that? Then it hit me; it’s a pangolin!

I lept from my seat and started shaking Sammy’s shoulder, pointing like a crazy person, and with as much control as I could muster considering the circumstances, said “Look! It’s a pangolin!”

My jeep mates, Elise and Paul McCulloch, were dazzled but couldn’t figure out why Sammy and I were so chuffed (a South African term for “incredibly excited”). We’d seen so many amazing animals on our adventure already but none that practically made our heads pop off.

While keeping my eyes peeled on the sighting of a lifetime, I explained how unbelievably rare it was to see a pangolin. It was their first safari and they’d hit the jackpot. We all high-fived.

While we gawked, the pangolin meandered about and then BAM, it crawled into a hole. All in all, the sighting was under two minutes. But no one cared about the duration. WE SAW A PANGOLIN! And we had pictures.

Miracle sighting # 2

A caracal walking in the grass in the Masai Mara, Kenya

Three days later, just after sunrise, we’re on our way north to the marsh near the Oloololo escarpment to see if we could find Scar. (Cecil of the Masai Mara for those of you not familiar.)

We’re cruising along on the lookout for any photographic opportunity, when a jackal darts in front of the jeep, barely missing being flattened by its tires.

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What on earth?

We all look to see what had its attention and it’s a caracal! A caracal! Another elusive and highly coveted sighting.

A caracal walking in the grass in the Masai Mara, Kenya

This totally made up for the morning in which a gorgeous male lion (like Disney gorgeous) was walking through the same high grass, roaring to the world about his prowess and virility and I missed the shot. Full disclosure: I accidentally hit the exposure compensation wheel and was shooting the scene with a -3 setting, essentially turning the lion into a black void. Before I realized my mistake he’d finished his show and disappeared. I was apoplectic.

But I digress.

A caracal is one of the most beautiful cats I’ve ever seen. The size of a very large house cat, our caracal had blue eyes and adorable little tufts on the tips of its ears. Like the pangolin, they’re nocturnal and solitary souls.

The jackal chased the caracal a few feet  into the brush on the other side of our jeep, after which the caracal turned around and gave him a really good hiss. The kind of hiss that stopped the jackal in his tracks and made him reconsider his whole strategy.  After careful deliberation, the jackal chose to leave the caracal alone.

We however, were once again high-fiving like idiots.

I just love Africa.



43 thoughts on “Miracle Sightings in Kenya’s Masai Mara

  1. Clipparoo says:

    Hi Susan, I am so jealous of your Pangolin sighting. I’ve only heard rumors of such an animal 🙂 You are so lucky! I told you earlier that you were my inspiration for doing a solo safari and I returned from Botswana and South Africa with some marvelous images and memories.

    I had my own Land Rover in both camps (Mala Mala and Mashatu), and a South African wildlife photographer guide traveling with me, so I was able to savor the animals–from lying in the grass as well as the vehicle, as well as the magnificent African sky at night. I have never seen the Milky way like I saw in Botswana and it will stay with me forever–photographing in the pitch dark with animal sounds in the distance is amazing. You had mentioned you would like to see my images upon my return. Thanks again for your inspiration. I had some great encounters: Public Facebook link of my album: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10153725299572959&type=1&l=88329b9c43

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hi Patricia-
      Sorry it took me so long to respond. I wanted time to look at your photos and my days have been a bit unruly. I am so thrilled that you had a good time. Your photos are really beautiful. You have a lovely eye and I really like how you compose your images. Your images from Myanmar are also stunning.

      Did you book your trip through a photographic organization or the photographer solo?


      • Patricia Pomerleau says:

        HI Susan, I used C4 Photo Safaris which is a professional photo operation based in South Africa. All the photo guides are heavy hitters, including folks like Greg du Toit. They also have photo-decked out land rovers with swing arms and gimbals which came in very handy on some days. I had a fabulous guide and lying in the grass and letting the zebras and impala just wander around us was magical. Drinking gin and tonics in the pitch black while waiting for my ‘star trails’ image to count down for 30 minutes, while lions roared in the distance was also pretty breathtaking. I got hooked. I’m going to the Masai Mara next September with C4. I seriously thought I was only going to do one trip to Africa. I arranged my second trip before I left the continent. I’m flattered you like my images. Again, thanks for being my Africa inspiration.

      • Patricia Pomerleau says:

        I noticed their site was having issues. I just sent a note to Shem, the owner. It has always worked beautifully in the past. Of course this is the first time it’s down : ( It’s a top drawer operation with amazing guides. they focus on Africa and all their guides except for two are South Africans. I know he is in Tanzania right now. I’m sure the site will be fixed asap. In the meantime, here is their Facebook page. The post constantly which is great.

  2. Robin S. Kent says:

    Wow, Susan! What fabulous luck. I hope it continues. You seem to be on a roll here (except for that little maneuver with the expsoure comp.). ANyway, thanks for the post, first time I’ve seen a shot of the Pangolin.

  3. Mike Powell says:

    Great shots and a really compelling harrative. The sightings were amazing and you helped us experience some of the feeling of the moments by including so many wonderful details about the circumstances.

  4. Tiny says:

    Amen to that last statement 🙂 Wow! Two miracle sightings! I must confess that on all my countless safaris, I’ve never seen a pangolin. Not once. Lucky you and high five to that!

  5. svtakeiteasy says:

    Chance encounters like those are so precious. I could feel your excitement. Both animals are amazing. Nature is amazing, I must say I have a soft spot for cats and the caracal is stunning… those ears!

  6. Laura (PA Pict) says:

    What wonderful encounters! I was excited for you when I saw the pangolin photo. My kids love obscure or odd animals so we’ve all become a wee bit obsessed with them. They will love it when I show them your pangolin photo.

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