Pangolins may look a bit like pinecones with claws, but that scaly exterior is highly effective at keeping predators at bay. Even big cats like lions, with their impressive bite force, are no match for the rock-solid armour. 

A lion in Londolozi Private Game Reserve tries its luck at cracking open a pangolin. Image © Sonya Joy

Writer Sonya Joy was on safari in South Africa's Londolozi Private Game Reserve recently when she witnessed two lions trying their luck at cracking through a pangolin's almost-impenetrable defences.

It was late afternoon and Joy was nearing the end of her stay at Londolozi when ranger Mrisho Lugenge steered his game-viewing vehicle towards a pride of a lions. Tracker Tshepo Dzemba had led the group to the cats earlier in the day, but they were "all in a state of extreme satiated slumber, sprawled out on the ground, bellies up and snoring," Joy explains in a blog post. Lugenge made the call to let sleeping cats lie and opted to return a bit later in the afternoon.

Image © Sonya Joy
Image © Sonya Joy

It was just as well he did. As they approached the cats for the second time, Mrisho and Tshepo were stunned to see one of the lionesses pawing and clawing at a pangolin. "Mrisho stumble[d] through an explanation, “I don’t believe it, she’s got a pangolin in her mouth!”

Image © Sonya Joy

These scaly anteaters are no bigger than an average household pet and do not have the kind of artillery required to fend off large predators, but they do have a super power: they are almost entirely covered in rock-hard scales. When threatened, the pangolin's defensive strategy is to simply roll into a tight ball and wait it out.

"Curled into a tight little ball, the pangolin [had] deployed its best defensive resistance, and the lion’s teeth [were] finding no purchase in the tight scales," Joy explains.

Their overlapping scales are comprised of keratin – a tough protein that's also found in fingernails and rhino horn. The armour is capable of withstanding even the most powerful of bites and the lion was clearly battling to breach the scaly ball.

Pangolins may seem "unhuntable", but according to Tristan Dicks, a guide with Safari Live who has witnessed lions hunting pangolins before, the big cats do occasionally succeed in breaking through the anteaters' defences. Young pangolins have softer scales and are particularly vulnerable to marauding predators.

In this case, the lion's attempts to prise open its meal seemed futile. After trying to lick her way through the scales, the lioness was eventually joined by a second cat and the two of them took turns "poking and licking and trying to bite into the poor little creature."

Image © Sonya Joy
Image © Sonya Joy

While there are a handful of recorded instances of lions taking on pangolins, the anteaters' nocturnal habits and shy nature make them difficult to observe in the wild, so it's not known how often they clash with big cats. Dan Challender, chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Pangolin Specialist Group, points out that there is some evidence that Asiatic lions occasionally target Indian pangolins in Gir National Park. 

As darkness set in at Londolozi, Joy and her group were forced to retreat, uncertain if the pangolin would survive the feline onslaught. The cats appeared to have abandoned their attempts to unfurl their prey, but it's possible they returned for a second try. 

For the pangolin's sake, let's hope they didn't. These odd animals are believed to be the most trafficked mammals in the world due to a high demand for both their meat – considered a delicacy in some countries – and their scales, which are used in Asian traditional medicine. The last thing this anteater needs is a lion gnawing on it.

Pangolins Trex Related Content 2015 08 07