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 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 large scales that look like giant 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 got pictures.
Miracle sighting # 2
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.
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.
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.