Researcher Daniel Rossouw stands in the tall steppe grass of the Kalahari and listens. Crickets give their concert, dry blades of grass rustle in the wind, a jackal howls in the distance. But the sound that Rossouw is hoping for – a gentle, rhythmic click – does not materialize for the time being. It is the sound that a pangolin’s shell scales make with every step the animal takes.

The armored pangolins, also affectionately known as “walking pine cones” or “tailed artichokes,” are shy, predominantly nocturnal solitary animals – and therefore difficult to spot. They love the protection of darkness and sleep underground during the day in their burrow. Only at dusk do they move to the surface and search for food.

Rossouw has already equipped four steppe pangolins (Smutsia temminckii) – two females and two males – with signal transmitters. Since then, he has spent many hours almost every evening in the grasslands of the South African part of the Kalahari semi-desert to learn more about the endangered animals. Rossouw’s research is part of a larger study called the Kalahari Threatened Ecosystem Project (KEEP). The lead Dedeben Research Center in the Tswalu Nature Reserve is located just a few kilometers south of the border with Botswana.

Patience is required

“Pangolin research requires one thing above all: patience,” says Rossouw with a laugh. Sometimes he stands half the night in the bush without seeing one of the rare pangolins with the long snout and sticky tongue. Even his tracking device, which can make contact with the transmitter attached to the shed with a quiet beep, offers no guarantee. Pangolins travel many kilometers every night and sleep in one of their numerous burrows – depending on their preference. For Rossouw, the search starts all over again every day.

But today the researcher is lucky. It is shortly after 4 p.m. and the sun has already sunk quite a bit in the winter of the southern hemisphere. A female pangolin crawls out of her burrow and goes looking for food. In the shelter of the tall grass of the Kalahari, it scurries from bush to bush and tree to tree in search of ants and termites. Rossouw follows carefully at a distance of a few meters, always taking care to stand against the wind so that the animal cannot sniff him out. If it moves on, Rossouw takes samples of soil and tree bark. The researcher carefully takes detailed notes. Every scraping and digging is recorded, every bush is marked.

Lots of questions, hardly any answers

At the moment, pangolin researchers have far more questions than answers. Even basic key data is missing. “We don’t yet have a method to determine the age of the animals. We don’t know how long they live, how long and how often they are pregnant, or even how many pangolins there are in the world,” says Rossouw. “Our observation data is very limited. Pangolins are still extremely poorly researched.” Although there are estimates, there are few facts. This also has to do with the fact that pangolins are difficult to keep – many end up in captivity.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has therefore classified pangolin research as a priority, says Wendy Panaino from the Tswalu Foundation. But in order to obtain meaningful data, decades of research are needed. “What we find out during our studies are just snapshots,” explains the ecologist. For example, the scientists got a good overview of how the pangolins feed and at what times they are active. But they cannot yet explain why this is the case.

Most poached mammal in the world

The pangolins, which cleverly curl up into a tight, armored ball when they feel threatened, actually have few natural enemies. Every now and then a lion, cheetah or hyena will try to eat a pangolin, says Rossouw, but generally with little success. “A lot of work for little meat,” says Rossouw, summing up the situation. The real enemy of pangolins is humans.

It is the pangolin’s typical scales that make the animals highly sought after. All eight species of pangolins – four in Africa and four in Asia – are on the IUCN Red List. They are endangered, critically endangered or critically endangered.

According to the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), more than a million pangolins have been poached in the past decade – more than rhinos, elephants and tigers combined. And those are just the official numbers, says Panaino. The number of unreported cases is many times higher. She is very concerned about the pangolins’ ability to survive. Since a female only gives birth to a young once a year – if at all – they are considered slow-reproducing animals. Pangolins will have difficulty recovering if their numbers are decimated. “This is very, very worrying,” says Panaino.

Like the rhinoceros horn, pangolin scales are said to have healing powers – although they are also “only” made of keratin, just like human fingernails. Above all, the demand from China and Vietnam for the production of Asian medicine is driving poaching, writes the ZSL. What is also fatal for pangolins is that their meat is considered a delicacy in Asia. In addition, African pangolins are also threatened by the loss of their habitat, the use of their scales in traditional African clothing and their consumption as bushmeat.

Since 2017, all eight species of pangolins have been listed in the highest protection level of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites). International commercial trade is therefore completely prohibited and is punishable by law. But the smuggling business is flourishing, according to the environmental foundation WWF. “If we don’t take decisive action against poaching and illegal trade now, populations will continue to collapse: for some species, a decline of more than 80 percent is expected by 2040,” warns Katharina Hennemuth, an expert on illegal wildlife trade at WWF Germany.

Insights thanks to “Kalahari Gold”

Meanwhile the sun has set in the form of a glowing red ball on the edge of the steppe. Then Rossouw makes an unusual discovery that makes his researcher’s heart beat faster: behind a bush where the female pangolin had just been digging, he finds a pile of feces. Rossouw’s excitement is written all over his face. It’s not for nothing that scientists call the extremely rare find of pangolin scat “Kalahari Gold” – that’s how valuable the excrement is for research.

Each of his colleagues will want a piece of it, says Rossouw with a smile as he carefully places the feces in a plastic bag. He himself hopes to gain new insights into the animals’ nutrition and digestion. The everyday work of a pangolin researcher is more tedious than adventurous. But today Rossouw has found a small but important piece of the puzzle that could potentially help save an endangered species.