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Africa Geographic Travel

Written by:  Joel Gunter 

I admit it. I’m addicted to Africa. I became hooked my first safari to Kenya in 1992 and while I was fixated then on seeing the Big Five, I now get even more excited to see the lesser-known species that make Africa so special and diverse. So on my 12th trip to Africa in March 2015, I wanted to venture into the equatorial forests of the Central African Republic (CAR).

I had been following closely the sad political events in CAR and befriended a lodge owner in the region, Rod Cassidy. When he gave the “all-clear” to visit, I set out to visit Sangha Lodge and the Dzanga Sangha Special Reserve.

Rod and his wife not only run the lodge but they also are passionate about the area’s flora and fauna. The rainforest is on the front lines of human-wildlife conflict as the demand for bushmeat threatens to strip the forests of life. It’s no longer hunter-gatherers like the Ba’aka forest people eating just what they need, but it has turned into a mass supply for markets in the villages which is unsustainable.

It was at Sangha Lodge that I was privileged to “meet” one of the most mysterious and mythical creatures of the forest, the black-bellied pangolin. Rod and Tamar have rescued many a pangolin headed for the dinner table. They clean them up, check their health and release them back into the forest as soon as possible. However, they have taken on the difficult task of raising orphaned pangolins when the mother has either been sold at the market or eaten and that’s how “Pangi”, the black-bellied pangolin arrived at Sangha Lodge.

Black bellied pangolin
The black-bellied pangolin and I

Orphaned by the bushmeat trade, Pangi, was brought to a local lodge by villagers. Raising a pangolin is incredibly difficult. In fact, it’s not known whether any human has ever successfully raised a black-bellied pangolin before. So little is known about their habits, and pangolins, one of the most trafficked animals on the planet, are notoriously difficult to keep alive in captivity. So it’s a monumental task to try to raise an orphaned pangolin (plus an orphaned baby blue duiker or two) and run a lodge at the same time!

Dzanga Sangha Special Reserve is known for “The Greatest (Elephant) Show On Earth” at Dzanga Bai (see BBC Planet Earth series) and the groups of habituated western lowland gorillas which you can track. You can also see bongo, but truth be known I was just as excited to meet “Pangi” as I was to see the other more charismatic species in the park. For an animal covered in scales, she seemed so delicate. This “pine cone looking thing” or something akin to a mammalian artichoke, moved precisely like a motorised toy. She emitted not a sound, save for the snuffling of her nose checking the air for food. Her caretakers told me she spent a lot of time curled in a ball napping when back in camp, but when I followed them out into the forest she came alive – visibly excited and active to be in her element.

Black bellied pangolin
Armand and Pangi
Black bellied pangolin
The Ba’aka helped find ant nests that Pangi would eat each day

Early on, in the first few weeks, Pangi was bottle-fed milk for sustenance. But as she grew older she seemed to develop an intolerance for the milk and after a couple of scary nights, it was clear that she needed more ants in her diet. How interesting to watch these caregivers trying to think like a mama pangolin and all the while reaching out to the few experts around the world via the internet to keep this rare animal alive. Every day the lodge staff and Ba’aka co-workers would enter the forest to scout out and mark locations where there were ant nests in the trees. They would then take Pangi into the forest to learn to be a wild pangolin and feed like one, and I would follow along behind.

In search of ants in the forest:

Black-bellied pangolins are arboreal and have extremely long prehensile tails that cantilever out, freeing up their forelegs to dig in with their claws and tear open the ant nests. Pangi was very particular about what kind of ants she would eat and after digging into a nest in the crook of a tree, darting her long tongue in and out of the crevices her face and scaly exterior covered in ants, she would stop eating as suddenly as she started.  I was told the ants emitted a pheromone or something unappetising and Pangi would move on even though there were still plenty of ants she could eat – nature’s way of preserving itself! Then she would climb ever upward towards the canopy, her instincts kicking in.

My visit to the Central African Republic fulfilled a dream I had for many years, but the opportunity to observe one of the most mysterious creatures of the continent made it all the richer experience. When I posted photos and video, most of my friends back home had never seen such an animal. It’s hard to secure the future of a creature no one even knows exists!

white bellied pangolin
The day of my departure a new orphan arrived – a white-bellied pangolin.

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Africa Geographic Travel
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