By: Ale Olivieri

The Holy Grail of the Safari

Ale is a Venezuelan born, field guide, conservationist and passionate wildlife photographer based in South Africa. From an Italian and Latvian background, she was born in Caracas by the beautiful Caribbean into a family of wildlife lovers and naturalists, which lead me to explore some of the hidden secrets of the Venezuelan Savanna and Amazon rainforest. At 22 Ale came to South Africa to volunteer and a wildlife rehabilitation facility and completely fell in love with a baby white rhino. This relationship had a profound impact on her and it lead her to relocate to SA. Ale started out working at a wildlife rehabilitation centre - Moholoholo as an animal caretaker and volunteer program admin/coordinator. A year later she was selected as a trainee ranger for a 6 month course at Lion Sands Game Reserve, based in the Sabi Sand. After the course she was employed by Ls where she stayed for 3 years before I decided to move to the UK for a year to pursue my master in Conservation Science at Imperial college London. Her thesis aimed at verifying the reliability of citizen science to monitor wild leopard populations in Ruaha National Park, Tanzania when compared to other more “traditional” methods like camera trapping. Once the project was done she returned to SA with her partner and were employed as the management couple of a 5 star lodge in the Sabi Sand, Simbambili Game Lodge. Currently based in Hoedspruit (South Africa), Ale hasn’t stopped exploring, living and enjoying the incredible wilderness areas of this continent!

The first time I saw a pangolin… I nearly died… in a car accident. Well, that sounds a bit dramatic. Let me explain. At the time I was working at a wildlife rehabilitation centre in South Africa; one night we were driving around in an enormous open game drive vehicle (safari vehicle with no windows and a pretty basic roof) , when all of a sudden Jan – the volunteer coordinator/driver, slammed into the breaks and ran into the bushes in a frenzy that seemed like utter madness. Not knowing what had happened things got even more confusing when this – a normally calmed character of the African bush – came out the bushes shouting, waiving his hands up in the air and possibly even dancing a little bit. 

All puzzled at Jan’s grin, we carefully stepped out of the vehicle as we went towards where he was signaling us to

come - still not over his terrible driving skills. The reserve where we were staying only had rhinos, so we didn’t have

to worry about any potential predators coming out to eat us. When we arrived to where Jan was, we found a funny

artichoke-looking creature rolled up in a ball close to where Jan stood: the mighty pangolin, a creature so rare that

professional ranger guides believe they are hallucinations and that can cause even the most unsuspected subjects to

start dancing of sheer joy. The pangolin caused chaos as we were all too excited for words and the people that didn’t

know what it was, knew how important and special this occasion was when everyone started celebrating a possibly

once in a lifetime sighting! Seeing there was a good chance of this creature meeting its end by curling up in a ball

(ironically their self defense mechanism) around one of the electric wires of the reserve’s fences, we contacted the

local authorities and it was later decided that the pangolin in question would be released back into the wild in a much

bigger reserved that boarded the Kruger National Park, an area that cover nearly 2.5 million hectares. Not bad for a

creature the size of a soccer ball.

A few days later the pangolin was released. We were concerned about keeping it for too long, as very little information is available regarding their diet (mostly termites) and their habits. A few days with us could have proven detrimental for it – even if he enjoyed destroying the termite mounds we put in its enclosure!

A few days later we had worried farmer show up at the rehab centre with a bag and a “funny” animal inside it. Concerned about the locals wishes to eat or sell this creature onto the black market, he had decided to bring it to us. Imagine our surprise when we opened the bag and found a second pangolin! More than anything, we were extremely grateful that this man had brought it to us so that this endangered mammal could be released in a safe environment instead of becoming food, or having it scales sold by the kilogram. Like the previous one, we released in the Greater Kruger Area, where we still hope it roams wild and free.

To see a wild pangolin is a very rare event, almost as rare as thee creature itself, a strange cross between an armadillo and a tiny t-rex. Seeing one is every ranger’s dream, seeing 2 however goes beyond any expectations one might have, as this secretive animal is the holy grail of the safari list for any well-travelled nature enthusiast