Lions, like most cats, will pounce on just about anything that moves. But two youngsters in Kenya's Masai Mara National reserve recently learned that some meals are just not worth the effort.

Tristan Dicks, a guide with Safari Live, came across this rare scene while on a night drive in the reserve late last year. Though pangolins are no bigger than your average household pet and lack the sort of artillery needed to fight off large predators, they are almost entirely covered in near impenetrable scales. Their defensive tactic against a looming threat is simple: roll up into a tight ball and wait it out.

Their overlapping scales are made from keratin – a tough protein that's also found in fingernails and rhino horn. The armour can withstand even the most powerful of bites and this lion duo quickly abandoned the scaly ball.

"When curled, there really is nowhere that the lions can get purchase with their teeth," Dicks explained to National Geographic's Jason Bittel. "That, coupled with the rain that night, made the surface far too slippery for the lions to actually do any damage."

While pangolins may seem "unhuntable", Dicks points out that the big cats do sometimes succeed in breaking through the anteaters' defences. Young pangolins are particularly vulnerable as they sport softer scales that have not yet hardened with age.

It's unclear how often lions interact with pangolins as the anteaters' elusive nature and nocturnal habits make them difficult to observe in the wild. According to Dan Challender, chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Pangolin Specialist Group, there is some evidence that Asiatic lions occasionally target Indian pangolins in Gir National Park. 

“The scales offer good protection, and pangolins will frequently leave an interaction with lions unharmed,” adds Challender.

The biggest threat to the pangolins' survival, however, comes not from lions, but from humans. Pangolins are considered the most trafficked animal in the world due to a high demand for both their meat, which is considered a delicacy in some countries, and their scales, which are used in Asian traditional medicine. There are eight species of pangolin in the world – four in Africa and four in Asia – and all of them are listed on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species. 

Pangolins Trex Related Content 2015 08 07

Top header image: David Brossard