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I believe in unicorns, just not pangolins…

I have a thing for trying to learn the collective nouns of animals (trying being the operative word), as some of them are just utterly ridiculous, and clearly concocted by English gentlemen with far too much time on their hands…or is it whiskey in their hands, I forget?

Wildebeest in the Serengeti
Wildebeest – quite a rarity in the Timbavati, hence I had to go all the way to the Serengeti just to get the photo for this blog © Chad Cocking

Still, seeing as we see them so infrequently in our area, collective nouns act as a good diversion when I realise that I actually don’t have anything to say about wildebeest!  But did you know, wildebeests are collectively known as an implausibility of wildebeest?  This should not be confused with an obstinacy of buffalo, a parade of elephants, a journey of giraffes, or a business of mongooses (and yes, it is mongooses and not mongeese or mongii)!

There are more common ones that many regulars to the bush like to brandish about, like a leap of leopards, a dazzle of zebras or a crash of rhinos, and occasionally, I have even heard people talking of a blessing of unicorns; but this is absolute hogwash, as everyone knows unicorns are strictly solitary creatures, and I have never seen more than one at a time.  In fact, one can find collective nouns for just about any animal around, except for one…the pangolin.

And why, you may ask?  Well, the only answer that I can come up with is that you can’t have a collective noun for an animal that doesn’t actually exist!  Have you ever actually met someone that has seen a pangolin?  I have met two people that claim to have seen these creatures; strangely, both men (and Dave and Morne, you shall remain nameless) tell of similar stories on different occasions…and both involve coming back from the same bush pub at some ungodly hour in the early morning, so read into that what you will.  But you’ve seen photos you say?  Well, I’ve also seen photos of England lifting the FIFA World Cup Trophy in 1966, but I still don’t believe that ever happened either.

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So it therefore stands to reason that pangolins must be mythical; there is no other explanation to elucidate why I have never seen one.  Petros, my tracker, who has done thousands of night drives, has never laid his eyes on a living pangolin, and the dead one he did see floating in a dam once could just as well have been a prop, much like those used when photographing the moon landings in a studio in Hollywood.  In fact, I think I have more chance of seeing a moon rock than I do of seeing a pangolin.  These facts have however not stopped the odd report of signs and sightings of pangolins coming through.

In my time in the Timbavati, only once has a pangolin ever been radioed in; and I was lucky enough to be on drive at the time, and for once, in a position that was worth making an effort to respond.  I am not quite sure if I said much more to my guests than “hold on!” as soon as the radio call ended, but less than a minute later I was informed that the animal had disappeared into a termite mound, and I could move back down from 5th gear into 4th; my approach was thus only marginally slower.  I arrived at what I guessed was the termite mound – it was surprisingly difficult to describe which mound potentially housed the mythical creature, as there were probably more “large termite mound(s) to the north of the road surrounded by mopane trees” on that road than there are pangolins in the universe, but after deciding that we had found the correct mound, I quite selfishly set up sundowner drinks in the middle of the road, in without doubt the worst location I have ever stopped for drinks!

But, i didn’t actually care as there was potentially a pangolin hiding in the termite mound next to us (strangely, I use that same desperate logic whenever I brave Hoedspruit on a Friday night, except I’m looking for a wife instead of a pangolin, and preferably not one hiding in a hole in a mopane thicket, but beggars can’t be choosers I guess).

So, with my guests preoccupied with G&Ts, Petros and I went to examine the hole…or should I say, I went to examine the hole and dragged Petros along; I did need someone to hold my feet, as after all, it was a rather large hole.  Armed only with the world’s smallest (and dimmest) Maglite torch, I started climbing into the hole, slowly getting deeper into the unknown…okay, that makes it sound very dramatic whereas in actual fact it was just plain stupid, but still, with Petros holding my feet I got deep enough into the hole to shine around with my 1.5 candle-power torch to see that unfortunately there was no pangolin hiding in the mound, and to this day, I still wonder what I actually would have done if I had found one inside?

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I almost got a second chance about a year ago to go stick my head where the sun don’t shine when one of our guides found tracks for a pangolin and followed them into a termite mound not far from the lodge, so after breakfast I went trapping off to see if I could find this mound – I didn’t, but what I did find was a lone buffalo bull resting 20m from the mound, so that sort of put an end to my pangolin hunt.  But my search goes on…

I guess I shouldn’t get too despondent about my failures to bust the pangolin myth, as I used to think the same thing about aardvarks until I saw my first one in the Timbavati last year – admittedly, I did actually see two in one night on the adjoining Ingwelala almost 20 years ago, but as I was only 10 years old and half asleep, I cannot be a hundred percent sure if it was indeed an armoury of aardvarks I saw, or if I had just dreamt them up.  So, when another radio call came through to me last year announcing the presence of a xiwombane, I was immediately bemused as to what the hell had just been called in, and as dear old Petros was off the vehicle tracking a leopard, I had no option but to ask the guide who found this xiwombane to kindly repeat his message, but this time in English.  The second syllable had not even left his lips by the time my car was in 5th gear again, as I not aware of too many animals that start with the syllable “aard-“!

An armoury of aardvarks…okay, it’s just one aardvark, but still! © Chad Cocking

Once more, I was fortunate enough to be in a position that didn’t make responding to this sighting impossible (although I could have been on the moon/Hollywood studio and I still would have made an effort), and off I shot, literally at the speed of a bullet, almost forgetting that Petros was off wandering around the bush on his own.  Now, if you are a CSI fan, and have actually been paying attention to this story, one thing should become evident to you – trackers don’t go tracking at night…and aardvarks don’t usually come out in the day…well, except for today!

I covered the 8 or 9km distance in a time that would have made many rally drivers pleased, and even more pleasingly for management, I still had both my guests safely on board, but all was forgiven when we pulled up to the waterhole to the sight of undoubtedly one of the world’s oddest mammals walking around drinking water and sniffing in the mud.  The myth was true; there really are aardvarks in the bush…and here was one…in the daylight!  I think even more fortunate than seeing an aardvark was the fact that my two French guests knew exactly what they were looking at, and appreciating exactly how rare such a sighting was – so much so that the one poor lady was so excited by it all that she forgot to push the record button on her video camera for the first 5 minutes of the sighting!  My boss, one of the men that claim to have seen a pangolin, has been in the Timbavati for ten years, and like Petros has never seen an aardvark; this fact had absolutely nothing to do with me going to rub my photos in his face the instant I got back from that drive – no, I did that just because I am a nice guy.

A blessing of unicorns © Chad Cocking

So whilst it may not have been an armory of aardvarks, I was still overjoyed to see just one, even if it was singular, as it’s a damn sight more than I have ever got to see of any pangolin, that’s for sure!  My only concern is, that if I ever actually to come across a pangolin, I will probably be left speechless, and not just from shock I am sure, but much like with wildebeest, I just won’t know what to say about it…and worst of all, I can’t even resort to discussing the collective noun for the thing, as there isn’t one!

So I hereby propose to rectify this situation with my own proposal: whilst an armory of pangolins would be descriptive, the aardvarks have already nabbed that term, so based on my own experience and hearing the experiences of others, there is only possible collective noun for pangolins at the end of the day, and that has to be, ‘a hallucination of pangolins’, as this would explain an awful lot about just who sees them!


Kafunta Safaris
Chad Cocking

I am a part field guide, part photographer, part tiara-wearing South African based in the Timbavati Private Game Reserve adjoining the Kruger National Park. Over the past six years, I have really settled into life in the bush, and besides living out my childhood dream of being a game ranger, I have developed a passion for capturing the special moments of my daily life on camera. While I don’t think I will ever fully appreciate how fortunate I am to be out in the bush all the time, I do realise that I live the life many can only dream of. I take great pleasure in sharing my magical moments and stories with anyone who cares to listen, and have connected with people from all over the world through my photography. Please feel free to visit my daily blog or my photography page on facebook for updates from the bush.