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Bush babies struggle in South Africa's urban jungle

Tiny nocturnal primates are being turned into pets, road kill, and even food.

CRAIGAVON, South Africa — At first glance, Craigavon’s streets look just like those of any other leafy suburb in Johannesburg.

But a trained eye might notice that this neighborhood’s trees are indigenous specimens swarming with insects, that one in five is a gum-secreting acacia karoo and that — most crucial of all — there is no more than a five-yard gap between them.

The reason for the careful layout of Craigavon’s trees is simple: They were planted for the sole enjoyment (and survival) of the suburb’s most elusive residents — bush babies.

Lesser bush babies (also known by the scientific name galago maholi) are one of the world's smallest primates, measuring about 7 to 8 inches and weighing from 5 to 10 ounces, according to the African Wildlife Foundation. They are very vocal, making noises that sound like a baby crying. They are nimble, fast and can leap 20 feet.

The  diminutive, nocturnal primates with oversized eyes used to roam freely over vast swaths of Johannesburg, but rapid and often disorganized urbanization has wreaked havoc on their habitat.

The country’s economically and culturally diverse population poses multiple threats to their environment. First, trees in areas designated for the building of sprawling estates and modern developments are systematically chopped down, thereby depriving the bush babies of their food source and sleeping quarters.

Beyond habitat worries, poor residents of Johannesburg’s many squatter camps hunt the animals to sell them as pets. They also harvest their body parts for traditional medicine or simply eat them. They also cut down the bush babies’ trees of choice, as they make for better firewood.

“They can jump quite a big distance and they can jump between two acacia trees that are quite far apart, but there is a limit to how far they can move and if you remove enough of the trees you just destroy their ability to move around their habitat,” said Judith Masters, a zoology professor at the University of Fort Hare.

But all is not bleak for the bush babies.

Craigavon is home to the last sustainable population of lesser bush babies in Johannesburg, and some of the suburb’s residents are determined to make their neighborhood a safe haven for the primates. They plant row after row of indigenous trees, including acacias whose high-sugar gum is one the bush babies’ favorite food sources in winter when insects are hard to come by. The conservationists also put up nests and install ropes when the distance between trees is too great for the animals to leap.

The bush baby protectors also use a two-sided strategy to educate and harass local builders to ensure their projects have only a minimal impact on the bush babies’ environment.