In search of Africa’s most elusive animal

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“We’ll weigh her every day, then every week and every month for up to two years,” says De Vos, who admits the team is learning something new every day. “At least we have created a baseline for studies. And who knows? In 20 years we may have saved a species. We don’t know; but at least we tried.”

When dusk falls and temperatures drop, we set off to check on an older female pangolin, which has already 
settled successfully into the wild. Using a telemetry device, we find her foraging outside the burrow. While weighing her using a bag and hanging scales, Naylor notices that her teats are swollen. Later, camera trap footage shows that she has given birth. The first pup to be born on KwaZulu-Nata soil for almost 50 years, this is a momentous discovery. 

But an even greater revelation is in store. As we prepare to leave, the curious new mum makes a beeline for me. Unsure how to react, I sit completely still as she rests her claws gently on my lap. Any holding, cuddling and unnecessary physical contact with pangolins is strictly prohibited at Phinda, so I wait – fearing even to breathe – until she chooses to move. 

What astonishes me most is her extraordinary vulnerability. It is both heartbreaking and humbling to comprehend how an animal that has been snatched from the wild and treated so badly can be willing to trust humans again. But perhaps this species’ greatest tool for survival is always to confound expectation. 

As Sierra had warned me earlier that afternoon: “A pangolin’s favourite thing to do is to prove you wrong.”


The details

Mahlatini Luxury Travel (02890 736050; mahlatini.com) offers a four-night holiday to &Beyond Phinda Mountain Lodge from £3,550pp sharing on an all-inclusive basis. 

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