The scat was crammed with ant exoskeletons. We found it under a rocky overhang on top of a nearby hill. We assumed it was pangolin poop. No other mammal of that size eats ants exclusively, and according to mammal books, pangolins shelter in rocky places. But neither of us had seen their poop before.
For confirmation, we sent a photograph to biologist-friend, Madhusudan of Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore. He hadn’t seen pangolin poop either.
The only live pangolin I’ve seen was in Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary several years ago. It had an elongated narrow snout with a lengthy tongue that picked up ants with the efficiency of glue paper. The claws were long and curved, to tear into ant nests and termite mounds. Its body was covered in large scales, and hence it’s also called scaly anteater. The tail grasped tree branches like a hand, a rarity among Old World mammals. When one of us moved suddenly, it rolled up into a ball. After some time, its little beady eyes peeked out to see if the coast was clear. It was a cute yet bizarre looking animal.
Rom maintains a disdainful public posture about mammals. He calls them stinky and filthy, unlike his clean reptiles. But the pangolin’s scale-covered body was freaky enough that he appropriated it, calling it an “honorary reptile”.
The pangolin lives underground most of the time. A lucky few see it when it walks ponderously from one ant nest to another at night. Many communities that eat pangolin meat claim it is tasty. Because of the anteater’s secretive life, no one knows if it is rare or common.
In Sri Lanka, we were excited to see a pangolin in the fork of a tree one morning. It was a once-in-a-lifetime sight, we told each other. But it remained suspiciously still for a long time. We eventually discovered a leopard had killed and stashed it up there, to eat later. Same place, same time, next day, we found another dead pangolin. And then another on the third morning. Clearly, that particular cat was a pangolin specialist.
Back at the farm, the thought of a resident pangolin was exciting. But Madhusudan found an online photograph of Cape pangolin droppings from Africa. Although a related species, it looked so totally different from the scat we found that we began having doubts. Cape pangolin poop was round, smooth, and almost white. The ants in its diet were completely digested, and there wasn’t a recognisable ant part in the dropping. The one we found was long, rough, and black. If it wasn’t a pangolin, what else could it be?
Rom and I wondered if it was perhaps ratel scat. We hadn’t seen that before either. In fact, we have never seen the animal.
When we first moved to our farm, one of our Irula colleagues showed us a recent excavation by a ratel. The animal is also called honey badger in some parts. Known to be feisty, a protective mother can even chase away lions. Visible in the wide open savannas of Africa, the species is rarely seen in India. With its don’t-mess-with-me attitude and ability to eat anything, I wonder why we don’t see more of it.
Since I couldn’t find a ratel expert in India, I sought the advice of Colleen Begg, a South African researcher. She said she has never seen ratel scat full of ants before, and she didn’t think they could digest so much formic acid, found in ants.
If it wasn’t ratel, the only other candidate was the sloth bear, which isn’t found in this area. Setting camera traps at the poop spot would solve the mystery. But even if we took turns climbing up and down the hill, setting up and retrieving the cameras, it was strenuous business. We abandoned the pursuit after two nights.
At this time, with all other possibilities ruled out, we have to assume it’s pangolin poop.
Unless one of you knows better.