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Rarely seen creatures of Africa – The Pangolin

A pangolin!

A rarely seen creature by safari travellers the Pangolin is a small mammal covered in tough overlying scales made from keratin – their scales act as armour to protect their insides when rolled into a ball when danger is around. Theses toothless animals have exceptionally long and sticky tongues, poor vision and hearing but a strong sense of smell. A pangolin’s tongue is attached on the inside of their bodies near the pelvis area and last pair of ribs; when fully extended their tongue is longer than that of their body and head!

Pangolins have powerful paws that make for a set of digging machines. There are five toes on each paw and three curved claws on their front paws. They are seen cutely scuffling over ground and can run up to speeds of about 5km/h, sometimes rising on their hind feet to whiff out scents in the air or walk short distances. These unusual animals have adapted to swimming and some species are tree climbers.

The 3 pangolin claws.

The name pangolin comes from the Malay word, pengguling, which translates into ‘to roll up.’ This fascinating animal is sadly on the list for endangered mammals due to the illegal wildlife trade and habitat loss. There are 8 species, with four species found on each continent of Africa and Asia. In Africa the species found south of the Sahara desert are; the Cape or ground pangolin, the tree pangolin, the giant pangolin and the long-tailed pangolin.


In South Africa pangolins are found in the northern parts of the country such as KwaZulu-Natal, North West and Limpopo. They also live in the neighbouring countries of the rainbow nation South Africa such as Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and various other African countries.

These incredibly scaly animals prefer living where there is sandy soil in thick bush or savannah grassland in areas where there are a high number of ant and termite populations. They dig their burrows using their front paws and claws, using their tails and backs legs for support and balance.

Solitary mammals by nature they are elusive and mostly nocturnal.  

Pangolin scales are their armour against predators such as leopards and hyenas. When danger is amidst they quickly roll into a ball, hissing, puffing and thrashing their sharp tails. They are able to release an awful smelling fluid from their anal glands, much like a skunk does, to ward off predators.

These small mammals are reliant on their strong sense of smell and mark their territories for other pangolins to pick up. They use scent markings such as their urine, secretions and sprinkling faeces on the ground to deter other pangolins.
Baby and mother pangolin. 


These scaly creatures eat an insectivorous diet mainly of ants and termites but will occasionally eat other vertebrates such as bee larvae, worms and crickets. 

They come out in the evening to dig for their food from ant/termite mounds, stumps and fallen logs using their claws and long sticky tongues to capture their prey.

In South Africa the pangolins are ready to reproduce at two years of age for 1 – 2 days during the month of March. Females give birth to a single baby pangolin after carrying for about 135 days in the winter months of July or August.

Baby pangolin scales are soft and pale in colour, beginning to harden from the second day of life. The pangolin mother is protective and nurturing, rolling around her baby when sleeping or danger is around. The baby is nursed for three to four months and eats insects from one month old. When the baby ventures outside, they hitch a ride on the base of their mother’s tail or cling to her back scales.
Giant pangolin. 

Did you know?

They mate side by side with the male forcing his tail beneath the female helping to mating. 

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