Pangolins Are Elusive. Here’s How to Up Your Chances of Seeing One on Safari.

When most people list the animals they want to see on a safari, they often start with big animals like lions, leopards, and elephants, and giraffes. But there are many more animals to see in Africa. And some of the most rewarding to spot are the most elusive.

Pangolins are among those creatures. The only mammal covered in scales, pangolins are a real prize to see on safari. Some might even call them cute.

This article introduces you to African pangolins and why they are so hard to find. We also offer insights on the best places to spot them.

pangolin rolls up into a ball so only its scales are exposed to the outside

Pangolins roll into balls while sleeping and to protect themselves from predators.

What makes pangolins unique

Beside the scales, another unique feature of pangolins is that their tongues are very long—up to 24 inches in some species! While most mammals’ tongues originate from muscles in the throat, the root of the pangolin’s tongue is attached to the bottom of its breastbone, near the stomach. No wonder it’s so long!

Pangolins eat a diet of ants and termites. To protect themselves from predators, pangolins roll into a tight ball and omit quite a stink. Their scales are sharp and provide further defense. They also protect themselves by sleeping in hard-to-reach areas. Tree pangolins sleep in trees, while ground pangolins sleep in burrows.

Although we know some things about pangolins, we have a lot to learn. Scientists still do not know how pangolins choose their mates, whether they are territorial, and how social they are. They seek to find answers by observing pangolins in the wild. Since pangolins are so rare, it’s hard to conduct this research.

temminks ground pangolin crosses a dirt road
A black-bellied-pangolin hangs on a branch
white-bellied-tree pangolin sits on a branch with its tail wrapped around the branch
pangolin sniffing at the ground

A Temminck’s pangolin ventures out of the grass (David Brossard). A black-bellied pangolin searches for insects on a green branch (Rod Cassidy). A white-bellied pangolin curls its tail around a branch (Justin Miller). A close-up of a giant ground pangolin.

How many kinds of pangolins does Africa have?

Africa has four species of pangolins:

  • White-bellied or tree pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis). This endangered species is about the size of a wild rabbit. Each of its scales has three points, so it is also called the tricuspid pangolin. White-bellied pangolins can be found across central Africa, starting in western Kenya and Tanzania, all the way to Guinea and Sierra Leone on the continent’s Atlantic coast.
  • Black-bellied or long-tailed pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla). Black-bellied pangolins are the only African pangolins that are more active at day. They live in trees and use their tails to help them balance on branches. The black-bellied pangolin lives in central and western Africa. Uganda is the only country in East Africa with black-bellied pangolins.
  • Giant ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea). This is the largest pangolin species. It reaches up to 70 pounds and six feet long. Giant ground pangolins appear to be most common in western Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. However, they are endangered throughout their range.
  • Temminck’s or Cape ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii). Temmink’s ground pangolin, or simply “ground pangolin,” has the largest range of the African pangolin species. It is the only pangolin that can tolerate arid conditions. It can be found as far north as Chad, and all the way down to South Africa. Temminck’s ground pangolins are about half the size of giant ground pangolins.
close up of pangolin's face

A rare safari animal

Pangolins are an uncommon sight on safaris. Why are pangolins so hard to find? There are several reasons. They are threatened species whose numbers have dwindled in recent years. They are nocturnal. And they blend in with their surrounding environment.

Pangolins are so elusive that wildlife guides may spend decades in the field without ever seeing one.

The biggest threat to pangolins is poaching. Many people in China and Vietnam believe pangolin scales can treat diseases. This is not true—pangolin scales are made of keratin, the same substance that makes up human fingernails. But this false belief has led to the illegal hunting and export of pangolins. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that one million pangolins have been poached and illegally trafficked since 2000.

Here’s another shocking statistic: one pangolin is removed from the African wild every five minutes!

tree pangolin adult climbs up a tree as a baby pangolin holds onto its tail

A white-bellied pangolin climbs a tree as its pup rides on its tail.

Where to look for pangolins in Africa

Finding a pangolin on safari often requires sheer luck. But you can increase your chances of seeing one if you include known pangolin habitats on your safari itinerary. You should also go out at night—either on nighttime game drives or by viewing animals from a hide. An experienced safari planner like Ujuzi African travel can help ensure your safari meets these criteria.

Pangolins are native to all mainland African countries where Ujuzi works. But in some parts of Africa, guides may not be able to facilitate pangolin sightings. This restriction is more likely in areas with high rates of poaching. If you are set on getting the best chance to see pangolins, focus on destinations known for their pangolin programs. We discuss several of these places below.

More importantly, we provide information about groups working to help pangolins. By protecting pangolins from poaching and habitat encroachment, we can ensure that they will be around for future safari goers.

Kenya

Western Kenya has giant ground pangolins and tree pangolins. Travelers have seen pangolins in several places, including the Lake Naivasha area, Tsavo Conservation Area, and the Mara Triangle on the border with Tanzania.

The Pangolin Project works to conserve pangolins through protection, research, education, and advocacy. Its research team is based at The Safari Collection’s Sala’s Camp in the Masai Mara. Visitors to Sala’s Camp can accompany the research team as it conducts field work. This provides you with the rare opportunity to travel through the savanna on foot—and you might see a pangolin while you’re at it!

Namibia

Namibia has several pangolin conservation projects where you can get a chance to see these rare animals.

Okonjima Nature Reserve in north-central Namibia is home to the AfriCat Pangolin Research Program. The program observes wild Temminck’s ground pangolins to understand them. This is one of the better places to find pangolins in Namibia, although Okonjima does not guarantee you will see one.

Learn more about visiting AfriCat and Okonjima.

At Erindi Private Game Reserve in central Namibia, some Temminck’s ground pangolins have been fitted with tracking devices. These devices help the conservation team monitor them and keep them safe. With dedicated pangolin tracking activities, you can venture out with a guide in the early morning or before dusk—during prime pangolin activity—and try to catch a glimpse of a pangolin before it returns to its burrow.

Another place to see pangolins is the REST wildlife rehabilitation center near Etosha National Park in northern Namibia. REST, or the Rare & Endangered Species Trust, has rehabilitated several pangolins that were rescued from poachers. These pangolins sleep in burrows at the center during the day and forage in the wild at night. Afternoon visitors have the best chance of seeing one of these pangolins.

South Africa

South Africa is home to a few reserves with specialized pangolin programs. Visitors can meet the scientists who run the programs and observe their work. This results in a high chance of seeing wild pangolins in person!

At &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve near South Africa’s eastern coast, a team of scientists is reintroducing Temminck’s ground pangolins to the local ecosystem. In December 2020, a wild pangolin pup was born in the region for the first time in decades—all thanks to this work!

At Phinda, you have the option of going out with the program’s ecological monitors to check on reintroduced animals. In addition to viewing a pangolin, you may have the opportunity to help out with a pangolin health check—for example, by holding the pangolin as the team checks its weight.

In northern South Africa, you have a good chance of seeing the elusive Temminck’s ground pangolin if you stay at the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve and opt to shadow researchers there. Tswalu works closely with the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG), aiding with research and conservation.

Tanzania

Three of Africa’s pangolin species are native to Tanzania, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to find. Occasionally there are sightings of giant ground pangolins in the Serengeti. Staying at Namiri Plains Camp in the Serengiti’s isolated Soit Le Motonyi region offers your best bet for seeing pangolins there. (And if you miss out on pangolins, you are pretty much guaranteed to see high numbers of cheetahs and many of the Big Five.) The Ruaha Valley of southcentral Tanzania is known for its population of Temminck’s ground pangolins.

But keep in mind that these are very large areas. There is no guarantee of seeing a pangolin on a visit.

The Tanzanian organization African People & Wildlife works to protect wildlife and habitats, including those of pangolins. They do this through direct conservation and by working with rural Tanzanians to create livelihoods that do not rely on poaching or damage to Tanzania’s natural resources.

temminks ground pangolin emerges from tall grass

A Temminck’s ground pangolin emerges from the grass.

Protect pangolins on your safari

If you are lucky enough to see a pangolin on your safari, do not to interfere with its natural behavior. Follow your guide’s instructions. And be ready to move on when the time comes.

Another important guideline: Do not “live” post about the sighting on social media. Poachers search social media posts to help them locate rare animals.

If you want to share the sighting online, follow these guidelines:

  • Wait until you have returned home and at least one month has passed before posting.
  • Remove the GPS data from your photo.
  • Do not mention the specific location where the pangolin was seen. It is usually fine to mention the general location, such as “Serengeti National Park” or “KwaZulu-Natal,” but it’s always a good idea to check with your guide first.
  • Make sure there are no identifying landmarks in the photo.

Your guide may have other suggestions. Make sure to follow them!

Explore Your Possibilities for a Pangolin Safari

Ujuzi African Travel can’t guarantee you’ll see a pangolin on your safari. But we can help you plan a safari that will give you the best chance of spotting one in the wild. And no matter your luck when it comes to finding pangolins, you can be certain that the journey will bring you close to countless creatures that are just as fascinating.

Let Ujuzi African Travel help you create your dream safari. Schedule a call today!

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