Most people have a bucket list – things they want to do before they die. I have one of those, as well as a bucket list of animals I want to see. This is divided (in my head) into aquatic animals and land ones. Included on the aquatic list are manatees, manta rays, narwhals, mantis shrimp, every single type of nudibranch ever documented, and – ever since I watched David Attenborough’s incredible Blue Planet II – a leafy sea dragon.
The “land list” is a little shorter – we are very blessed to live in the animal Mecca of Africa after, all – and includes a Riverine rabbit, a striped polecat, an aye-aye, a tapir, a moose and a sloth. For a long time, the two animals at the very top of that list were an aardvark and a pangolin, and I would make game rangers sigh in exasperation when I asked them to kindly find me one of each – along with everyone else’s requests for giraffe and lions.
And then, last year – after all those years of asking and waiting – I managed to tick both off the list.
Samara Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape is well known for its cheetah conservation programme, but also increasingly for its aardvark sightings. Unfortunately, I arrived at the wrong time of year to see these comical long-snouted creatures, but nevertheless, one of the game rangers indulged me and took me out on a solo late-night game drive. After 45 minutes of nothing we were about to throw in the towel . . . when the spotlight picked up something in the bushes.There he was, the aardvark of my dreams! Well, his bum at least. He refused to smile for the camera, but I can now say that I have officially been mooned by an aardvark! (Incidentally, the bucket list has now been updated to: “face of an aardvark”.)
Pangolins are kind of the unicorn of the African bush. Nocturnal, critically endangered due to continuous poaching for their scales, and notoriously shy, you have about as much chance of seeing an un-tagged one in the wild as you do of winning the Lotto.Which is why I honestly thought our game ranger was joking when he put his foot on the accelerator to race to the sighting. But there he was – scales, wiggly snout, pink tongue and all – having a little rest under a bush. Later that evening, when we returned to Pafuri Camp in the Makuleke Concession of the Northern Kruger National Park, even game rangers who had worked for decades were jealous of our sighting, so seldom – if ever – had they seen one themselves.
I count myself incredibly lucky to have seen these two amazing animals, and hopeful that my luck will continue this year. It makes you realise just what an amazingly rich continent we live on, and reminds you to really make the effort to get out there and experience it – while we can. Critically endangered animals, like pangolins, are always going to be hard to find. But by supporting the conservation of protected areas and doing our part to denounce poaching, we can ensure that one day, in the not too distance future, animals like zebras – or giraffe or impala – will not be on someone else’s list of virtually impossible-to-find animals.