Ground Pangolin of Southern Africa
Temminck’s Ground Pangolin Smutsia temminckii (synonym Manis temminckii), is the most widespread African pangolin species, recorded from south-eastern Chad, through South Sudan, much of East Africa and southern Africa as far south as the Northern Cape and North West provinces of South Africa and northeast KwaZulu-Natal Province. It is a rare, scale-covered mammal, about the size of a house cat; it could be labelled as a walking pinecone, scaled anteater or a friendly crocodile.
The pangolin is described as a predominantly solitary, terrestrial species that inhabits mainly savanna woodland in low-lying regions with moderate to dense scrub, including high rainfall areas and rocky hills, but excluding forest and desert. The most important habitat requirements are a sufficient population of the various ant and termite prey species and the availability of dens or above-ground debris in which to shelter. The female gives birth to a single young after a gestation period of approximately 105-140 days. When threatened it curls into a ball to protect the head and underparts as its anti-predation adaptation.
Pangolins have very small eyes and poor eyesight. They rely greatly on their strong sense of smell as well as their hearing to locate prey items. They have one of the longest tongues in the mammal kingdom – it extends back into a special cavity in its abdomen and is actually longer than the whole body of the animal and is drawn into a protective sheath when not feeding. The long tubular protractible tongue is used along with their long claws to feed. Once they have located an aggregation of ants or termites the claws are used to open underground galleries followed by a rapid insertion of the tongue to collect termites. Hence the Pangolin plays an important ecological role in controlling certain insect species such as termites and ants.
Pangolins have no teeth and consume their prey whole. They have a unique stomach to digest the food. The stomachs of pangolins contain small rocks and pebbles which are swallowed to aid in digestion. The stones, together with strong stomach walls which have protruding points, enable the animals to crush and break down their food to aid digestion. Feeding is presumably reliant on the ability of the animal to move its body due to the required mechanics of the stomach and the physiology of the tongue. Interestingly, the ants which the pangolins consume contain formic acid – ant venom. This means that pangolins do not need to produce hydrochloric acid to promote digestion as is the case with most other mammals – their food conveniently helps to digest itself. This also means that ants are a very important dietary requirement.
Temminck’s Ground Pangolin is listed as Vulnerable under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red Data List of Threatened Species (IUCN 1996). This threat status is based on inferred past/ongoing and future population reductions, primarily because of ongoing exploitation for traditional medicine and bushmeat throughout the species’ range and evidence of increased intercontinental trade to Asia. True rates of decline are not well known.
The sad fact is that most South Africans have never seen a live pangolin and probably never will. There is a real need to enforce protective legislation over much of its range. Pangolins do not naturally occur in the Western Cape, but in 2014, CapeNature seized a live pangolin during a sting operation targeting illegal wildlife trade through the province. Five suspects were charged and four found guilty in October 2019, of contraventions in terms of the Nature Conservation Ordinance. The pangolin was saved. Private pilots rallied to find a “seat” on a charter flight to send the pangolin to a rehabilitation centre in the north of the country (specific details deliberately omitted).