Mozambique Diary: Rescuing a Dragon

A guest post by Jen Guyton

In my lap was a specter, one of the most elusive animals in sub-Saharan Africa. I’d been waiting years to see it, and now it was weighing abrasively on my thighs like a sack of bricks stuffed into a giant pinecone. It wiggled and unfurled its roly-poly body just enough to reveal an eye like sticky caviar, its tongue whizzing in and out and reinforcing the illusion that this scaly orb was a dragon come to life.


But it was a warm-blooded, placental mammal, confirmed by the tiny body double that was furled in her grasp, suckling at the teats exposed on her underbelly. The mother and her pup were ground pangolins (Smutsia temminckii), one of eight species belonging to the mammalian order Pholidota, found only in Africa and southeast Asia. Though often called scaly anteaters, pangolins are unrelated to the Vermilingua, the suborder containing true anteaters. Actually, pangolins aren’t closely related to much of anything; these animals are unique, clinging to a long, isolated branch on the tree of life.

Safe at last – rescued from poachers, a Ground pangolin and her baby boy are going back to Gorongosa National Park to be released back into their habitat.
Safe at last – rescued from poachers, a Ground pangolin and her baby boy are going back to Gorongosa National Park to be released back into their habitat.

We were in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, and someone had told us about her. There was a man in a village across the river, the whispers went, selling her for the low price of 22,000 meticais (about $700 USD). Like rhinos, pangolins have fallen victim to a deeply-held misconception that their keratinous scales hold medicinal magic: that they can cure skin disease, reduce swelling, or even conquer cancer. I’ll tell you now: save yourself the money and the risk of jail time, and just chew on your nails – they are chemically and physiologically the same.

One day and a sting operation later, the pangolin was in my lap. Park rangers, working with the local police, arrested the poachers and rescued the animals. We were driving them out into the core of the park, where we’d release them, safely distant from grasping human hands. Though the pinecone plates of a pangolin’s back can and do stand up to being chewed on by lions, these animals are no match for a human that’s interested enough to simply pick one up and carry it off. Their only other defense is their smell, an indescribable odor that originates from a noxious acid secreted from glands below the tail.

I ran my hands along the pangolin’s scales. They were grooved and brittle-chipped, crooked and mud-splattered like fingernails that had seen many years of working with the land. In Asia, the scales of confiscated pangolins bear the circular scars of punches used for medicine. Even the artful hand of evolution, which had crafted this unique armor from a plush pelt, couldn’t save them.

Bipedal and armed with massive claws, a Ground pangolin could easily be confused with a carnivorous Jurassic raptor. But these gentle mammals feed exclusively on termites and ants, and their only defense is a thick armor of keratinous scales.
Bipedal and armed with massive claws, a Ground pangolin could easily be confused with a carnivorous Jurassic raptor. But these gentle mammals feed exclusively on termites and ants, and their only defense is a thick armor of keratinous scales.

As she unrolled herself from her fortress, a second head surfaced, tiny and pale. It was her male pup, the only one that will be born until he reaches sexual maturity in two years. He was born in captivity, a side effect of stress, and an unrealized bonus prize for the poacher. His scales were half-baked, pliable, and the dark shriveled stump of an umbilical cord poked from his round belly. He moved in the shivering stutters of an infant still unsure about the world.

As the pup crawled up my arm, the mother thrust out a hooked hand to right herself. Her claws, the length of my fingers, gripped my jacket like rusty nails and tore a gaping hole in the material as they bore into my side. I jumped, and she rolled back into a ball, her pup safely inside. These formidable sickle-claws are used to tear open termite mounds and ant nests, shredding the hard earth in search of scrambling adults and doughy larvae. The pangolin laps them up with its sticky-salivating tongue, longer than its own body and the longest relative to body size of all known mammals. Because pangolins lack teeth entirely, keratinous folds line their stomachs with inverse armor, grinding the insects to bits with the help of ingested pebbles.

Having spent a month in captivity, the pangolin, her baby tenuously clinging to her back. takes the first steps as a free animal.
Having spent a month in captivity, the pangolin, her baby tenuously clinging to her back, takes the first steps as a free animal.

We finally reached an appropriate site: far from the park’s perilous edges, the forest bulged above a tapestry of termite mounds. We set her gently on the ground, and waited.

Pup clinging to her back, she stood and sniffed the air, taking a few moments to orient herself to her new and safer home before choosing a bearing. Her scales clack-clacking, she ambled away on her hind feet like a drunken Velociraptor, tail out and claws curled against her chest. It’s hard to walk on all fours when you’ve got scythes for hands.

In Chinese mythology, pangolins are wayfarers. It’s said that they travel the world by digging through the core of it, tying the earth together with a vast underground labyrinth. In Cantonese, they’re called chun-shua-cap, “the animal that bores through the mountain.” I’d like to think she’s safely reached the Alps by now.

Text and artwork ©Jen Guyton 2014

If you would like to learn more about pangolins, and threats they face from the illegal wildlife trade, read a recent expository piece on the CNN website.

Safe under his mother's armor, a young pangolin will stay with her until his own scales are large and strong enough to provide protection from predators.
Safe under his mother’s armor, a young pangolin will stay with her until his own scales are large and strong enough to provide protection from predators.

33 Comments Add yours

  1. Good day very nice site!! Man .. Excellent .. Superb ..
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  2. We have seen him there at Home in Mozambique this january 2016. We call him #Hala_ka_Vuma. It was so suprising to see him becouse my father never saw him in his life. Nd now my father is 60years Old. We take him as God , we respect him as God ,we treat him as an respected Chief. Becouse where he apears there is something to tell about that land nd Peace , Pangolins or #Hala_ka_vuma in Shangane or Tsonga Language, can Talk to the prophet nd he does listen nd Store Peace in the Land ,becouse the have strongPower to contact with ancestors. It was a Special moment for me nd Others to see him.

  3. Paul Venter says:

    Thanks for this……an intimate moment with an animal in the twilight of its existence

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  9. Wealthy Gift says:

    I’ve never heard of such animal before. I think they are the biggest weirdos of whole animal world – I mean it in a good way ;-)

  10. judithballoff-ohmer says:

    wunderschöne Bilder und ein toller Bericht Jenny, mach weiter so

  11. Johnny says:

    I like armadillos!

  12. So you went in to the wild, to study wilderness, comes across a species you’ve only seen three times in your last 10 to 15 years, and immediately decide, I need to take this home and kill it. How else would it have ended up in a museum if you didn’t kill it? F&*K you. Leave it be, especially if you’ve only seen it 3 times in your last 10 to 15 years. What the hell is it with people who want to study these things and killing them? How about you observe it respectfully in its natural environment for as long as you can and let it live. You are such an a$$hole.Here’s hoping if the human species is ever invaded by some other intelligent beings, they decide to do the same thing with you.
    mIn <That is the nearest equivalent my keyboard will give me to flipping you off.

    1. You probably did the same thing to the poor armadillo in this post,

    2. Siggy says:

      Far be it from me to answer for the author, but here are some things you may not have considered. First, just because he hasn’t seen them very often doesn’t mean they are endangered. These are small nocturnal animals that live in the jungle so their habits tend to make encounters with humans rare. Another thing to consider is that academic study of animals often requires dissection, that means killing it. Also, not every researcher is able to travel the world to see their subjects live in their natural habitat, hence museum specimens are a valuable research tool as well. If your against killing animals in general, fine, just say so. But I highly doubt that Piotr’s actions have done anything to put the population of bird-eating spiders at risk. Fact is that researchers that kill the occasional specimen for study do more for these animals than nearly anyone else.

      1. nunaya says:

        psst…Siggy- based on her post, I’m not sure that she can read. Excellent points that you made, though.

  13. Thalia Stein says:

    I was dismayed that you killed the giant birdeater spider to send it to a museum. You yourself pointed out that you have only encountered 3 so far! That is a big reason to leave them alone to multiply and live! Taking the photoes would have been just enough! Why do people have to destroy everything they encounter and feel proud of it!?!!!!!!!!!!!!! :( :( :(

  14. Mo says:

    What an amazing creature!

  15. Heath Graham says:

    Well done! Thanks for sharing.

  16. hannele says:

    Such a pleasure to read! Wonderful images, too.

  17. tjastle says:

    I forgot to say, lovely artwork as well.

  18. tjastle says:

    Wonderfully written, great photos. Amazing (and frankly, adorable) creatures.

  19. wizentrop says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post. It is very well written and I love the artwork. Even after looking at the photographs, clearly depicting live individuals, Pangolins still looks unreal to me! (something about those beady eyes makes them look like plush toys)

  20. Siggy says:

    Great post! I’ve always found these animals fascinating. And I learned a lot of things about them here.

  21. rcannon992 says:

    I like the comment about chewing on your nails! How can we get that message across to the Chinese who stupidlyseek and demand this ‘product’?

  22. Do they carry leprosy or have the potential to like armadillos do?

  23. Bart Wursten says:

    Fabulous stuff Jen and Piotr!!!

  24. Mark Hanna says:

    Wonderfully written article, and I love your painting at the top.

  25. Sean McCann says:

    Great post! Such an impressive animal, I had no idea they were so robust. Best of luck in your research, and pass my best wishes on to the pangolins and conservation officers trying to save them.

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