The shy little house guest

January 19, 2020

An unexpected visit turned out to be one of the most curious encounters with Pakistan’s wild animals

Picture credit: Indian Pangolin – image by Ansar Khan (LifeLine for Nature Society)

On a Sunday winter morning, just like this one, in our walled Lahore garden, an unexpected entrance stirred things up. In walked our extremely tall, white South African friend, the late Richard Garstang.

He walked into our garden, a large, replete, jute sacking thrust under his arm. Greeting me, he placed his substantial parcel onto the brick paving, and set about unwrapping the sack. What emerged was a very large ball – as big as a truck tyre – that looked exactly like an oversized pinecone.

Into the safe haven of our garden, we had just received a refugee creature called a pangolin. It turned out to be one of the most curious encounters of our numerous ones with Pakistan’s wild animals.

“I got an SOS phone call from a woman in Lahore this morning who discovered this pangolin. She said she was near China Chowk and Lawrence Road, just off the water channel that runs through. So I drove over and fetched it here”.

Spotting the scene, instantly, our cleaning woman screamed ajh-da-haa!! (dragon) and scrambled up the stairs as if the creature would chase her. Between her hysterics and the silent, inert ball of scales, we gazed on nonplussed.

Children were shooed off from the garden and all humans decided to retreat into the house, using our windows as viewing gallery for the slightest sign of movement in this mass of scales.

We were to learn later that the pangolin’s sole defence mechanism is its ability to curl up into a ball of scales when under threat. These scales cover its entire upper body from nose tip to tail. Even the now extinct Asiatic lion that once lived in this region would standby as nonplussed as we were in the face of the curled up mammal. Together with its shy, gentle temperament, the pangolin seems to me to be ahimsa personified: non-violence towards all creatures.

Sadly, like many long-enduring ways of the world, the ahimsa of the pangolin is now getting short shrift. What worked as protection from mighty lions, no longer protects this creature from humans – the pangolin is currently the world’s most trafficked mammal and is threatened with extinction. Its scales and flesh are thought by many to have various remedial qualities including curing infertility.

At the time, we were unaware of all this, worrying instead about its recovery and wellbeing. The first step was to exclude humans and observe what happened. As evening came, the family heard a loud rattling from the garden. No longer a ball, we saw a four feet long, hunch-backed creature, with a small snout, hobbling on its knuckles, with a scaly tail, some 70 percent the length of its body. We now had a full view of the Indian scaly anteater, also called a pangolin.

The rattling started as the Pangolin burrowed itself behind the curtain of cane stakes that made a partition between our brick boundary wall and sweet pea seedlings. Sheltering in this cane partition, our pangolin began to explore the length of the wall of sweet peas, body scales rubbing against canes with a rattling rumpus. “Oh nooo, your sweat peas” my mother-in-law lamented.

Pangolin at last exiting fear mode, and moving around was a great relief. Our attendance at a wedding was hastily cancelled, relegating the annoyed grandparents to attend in our stead. As darkness fell, we stayed home to watch the scene unfold.

How would we feed this mysterious creature? Can ants be collected and served up in a bowl? These were culinary challenges beyond my imagination. So we put out trays of milk and water, hoping for happy, ant-hunting during the nighttime for our guest as we went to bed.

The next morning we saw pangolin and our daughters all together in the garden. Pangolin sedately marching the periphery of our garden walls, girls giggling in glee behind, touching its scales, tickling its pink underbelly and making eye contact with its little, black, beady eyes. All probing elicited almost no reaction, except when our little daughter discovered the hairs on the tip of each scale along its spinal cord. Gently pulling these hairs created a little shudder in the Pangolin much like a funny bone reaction.

Soon we saw a nest being prepared in the shade of our garden wall. Powerful fore claws dug the soil like mini-excavators and dug and dug until the foundation bricks of our wall were exceeded and a five feet deep hole was made. In this, our pangolin settled down for a curled up nap.

Horribly worried by possible food scarcity in the absence of termite and ant mounds, we arranged for the nearest protected area in the city’s periphery to receive the pangolin back into its natural habitat. The next morning was departure day, just as the children’s attachment was palpable.

One final attempt at offering refreshment left me with a modicum of satisfaction. As a bowl of water appeared, the Pangolin swiped out its 10-inch long, cylindrical, straw tongue into the water. The tongue moved so swiftly that it made froth of the water surface. After a drink, a small pool of healthy, yellow urine was evidence to hospitality accepted by our inscrutable guest.

Pangolin was safely released into Lahore Wildlife Park on Raiwind Road, where we pray for a long and peaceful life for this mysterious and shy houseguest. No easy feat for a being committed to ahimsa in a predatory world.

The writer is a Lahore-based ecologist.

Pakistan’s wild animals: An encounter with a pangolin