Before coming out to Zambia I’d been working with British TV presenter and naturalist Chris Packham on an online series on the illegal spring bird hunting in Malta. When we weren’t being assaulted by men with guns or shouted at by corrupt policemen we discussed happier things mainly wildlife related. One such topic was pangolins. Weird prehistoric looking, termite eating armadillo-like (although completely unrelated) creatures. Pangolins occur in Africa and Asia, the Temminck's pangolin that you can find in Zambia is mega rare. To put things into perspective there had been 4 sightings for South Luangwa NP since 1937. I didn’t expect to see one, not on this trip, not ever.
Every so often a group of local actors would come to the lodge to perform a play called the ‘Saker’ for the guests. I’d seen it a few times but was aiming to record their singing to add to the videos I was producing. It had started normally and I had recorded some bits and bobs when I get a tap on my shoulder. ‘Luke, there’s a pangolin on the path. Come quick’. When you're watching a play drinking ginger beer and someone tells you this you wonder if you're dreaming. I won't write what I actually said but once my brain had processed what I’d just been told I leapt up, grabbed my stuff and started running.
The sight that greeted me was just as surreal as what I’d just been told. A paparazzi of guides, managers, waiters, chefs, night-watchmen and room attendants, almost of all armed with an array of photographic equipment from cameras to iPads and phones, lined up looking at the thatched fence where a pangolin was strolling up and down illuminated by torchlight. No one apart from Ian, the general manager, had ever seen one before. This was a first for everyone and it was clear to see. Slowly news began filtering through and more and more people came to see it. In the end everyone on Lodge property had seen it. Apart from the very unlucky Suzyo who I later found out slept through the whole event!
I stopped snapping pictures after failing miserably to get a shot without a human or unnatural thatched fence in the background and enjoyed the show. After a while people started moving away but I made myself the nightwatchman of the pangolin. I was joined by Katie, one of the bush camp managers, and Fran and Nick the two hosts for the Lodge and we quickly christened the pangolin Pam. World firsts followed with the first selfie with a pangolin being taken.
As the lodge is situated within the park itself it isn't uncommon for animals to stroll into the grounds, with hyenas, lions, hippos, elephants and leopards all being some of these guests its not the safest place to be strolling around on your own at night. Alick, one of the guides, insisted I had a game vehicle to stay in when I was waiting for the pangolin despite this happening metres from my room. The sensible people (everyone apart from me) headed to bed around 11pm once even Pam had made a bed for herself in a leaf pile and had seemingly called it a night. At around 1130pm Pam still hadn't stirred. I gave her one last look and headed off, leaving probably the only pangolin I’d ever see to it.
Sitting in my room looking through my photos I was torn. This was an incredibly rare animal that only a handful of people in the world have seen in the wild and my photos just didn’t do it justice, Pam had hung out near the fence the whole night and I had only a few ‘natural’ shots of her. I was still deciding whether to head back out when I heard rustling outside my room. I always heard rustling outside my room and usually it was either a genet, honey badger, African civet or hyenas but as I was awake I thought I’d go out and check.
I shone my torch around but there was nothing, no eye shine but still rustling. I ventured out a bit further and there she was. PAM!
I ran back to where I’d left her to check if there were actually 2 pangolins, not believing after seeing her be so sluggish before. Could she have strolled the 30 metres to my room so quickly and now be feasting on the termites and ants outside my room? Pam had made my decision for me, what a babe.
By this time everyone had gone to bed and I had Pam to myself. It was amazing to watch her feed completely naturally, walking back and forth, sniffing away and zipping her crazily long tongue in and out to grab passing ants. She soon became used to me, like an armadillo when threatened pangolins will roll in to a ball and stay that way. She didn't do it once, she even came up to my feet to sniff them and see if I was concealing any ants.
The noise of me excitedly following Pam around on her private photoshoot and the fact my flash was illuminating the whole compound soon roused Katie who came out to see what the fuss was all about. She was also amazed by Pam’s transformation into this energetic little armoured critter. I ended up hanging out with Pam till 2am, when she wedged herself amongst some old breeze blocks. I thought she was stuck but when I tried to help her out she wasn't impressed so I left her to it and sure enough in the morning she’d vanished.
Everytime I heard a rustle outside my room I checked to see if Pam had returned but she never did. The 5th record for the park since 1937. A few weeks later I was told of one at Mbangula lagoon, a stones throw from the lodge. Glad to hear Pam (possibly) was still going strong.