CONSERVATIONISTS at Chester Zoo have captured 'momentous' video footage of the elusive giant pangolin as part of a pioneering study.

The zoo team, in collaboration with Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Rhino Fund Uganda has discovered new insights into the previously secret lives of the little-known species in Uganda.

Scientists hope to generate vital data that will help with the long-term conservation of giant pangolins in Uganda, and elsewhere in Africa.

Pangolins, sometimes called scaly anteaters, are the only mammals in the world to be covered in hard overlapping and protective scales made of keratin - the same substance as human finger nails and rhino horn.

They live on a diet consisting entirely of ants and termites, which they lap up with their long sticky tongues, and are able to quickly roll themselves up into a tight ball when threatened.

The giant pangolin, measuring up to 5.9ft (1.8m) long and weighing up to 5st (75lbs), is by far the largest of the world' eight pangolin sub-species and is found only in the rainforests and grasslands of equatorial Africa.

In Uganda, hunting or possession of protected wildlife species such as pangolins carries a punishment of five years imprisonment, while trafficking of pangolins or any other wildlife species carries a minimum prison sentence of seven years.

However, despite full legal protection in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa, international customs agents have in recent years intercepted large shipments of African pangolin scales.

Now, researchers from Chester Zoo have surveyed for the presence of giant pangolins within three protected areas in Uganda.

Working alongside the RFU, they have carried out an intensive survey of the country's Ziwa Sanctuary using camera traps and tracking techniques such as looking for footprints, burrows and other signs of the species.

So far, the 70 motion-sensor trail cameras installed by the zoo in Ziwa have captured hundreds of images and video clips of giant pangolins, including the first colour footage of the species ever recorded in Uganda.

Stuart Nixon, Chester Zoo's Africa field programme and research lead, said: "The giant pangolin is a beautiful, mysterious and utterly fascinating species but studying them is extremely challenging.

"Tragically, we do know the giant pangolin faces a huge risk of going extinct across Central Africa.

"With no giant pangolins in zoos or safari parks anywhere in the world, all our conservation efforts must focus on saving them in the wild.

"The momentous images and video we are capturing at Ziwa prove that when sites are well protected against poaching giant pangolins and other species can flourish."

By collecting pangolin dung samples, the zoo’s conservationists are also gathering crucial information on the animals’ diet and hope to learn more about the genetics of giant pangolins.

Sam Mwandha, executive director of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, said: "These rare glimpses into the lives of giant pangolins are very exciting for those of us dedicated to protecting Uganda's rich wildlife and challenges us to ensure that we protect and conserve this highly threatened species for future generations."