Bush babies struggle in South Africa's urban jungle

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.

“I’d just really like to try to get developers to be more environmentally sensitive and aware,” said Paula Combrink, a longtime Craigavon resident and a member of Bushbaby SOS, a local organization dedicated to saving the area’s bush babies.

Some agree to preserve their property’s existing trees, but many don't. The developers’ first task is often to remove all the trees from a lot, even if the building phase could wait months or years to start. Surveying one such treeless plot this week, Combrink lamented that bush babies “could have been living here quite happily for a good two-three breeding seasons,” had they not cut the trees right away.

With development comes cars, pets and children. For bush babies, that often means road kill, cat bites and toy gun wounds. Those who survive this onslaught often find their way north to Pretoria, where Marti Scholtz-Koen has set up a rehabilitation center. Scholtz-Koen started taking in a few injured and distressed bush babies nine years ago as people figured her experience handling exotic monkeys would translate to bush babies.

Besides her backyard, the rescue operation now includes several game reserves and release sites, and she treats up to 50 bush babies a year, an increase she blames on major residential developments and road projects.

The work is very demanding, as it may take months or even years before a bush baby is ready for release, but the end result makes it all worth it for Scholtz-Koen.

“It’s very fulfilling to get one eventually released because the main idea about the whole situation is to release them,” she said.

Nicci Wright, who manages the FreeMe Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in northern Johannesburg, regularly takes in bush babies, along with jackals, otters, owls and antelopes, all victims of man’s malicious or inconsiderate behavior. Wright does outreach toward children and developers alike, but doubts her caseload is set to decline.

“Sometimes you do think, ‘God, what difference are you actually making?,’ but we’re making a huge difference to the animals that do come through here obviously,” she said.

Northern South Africa is the tail end of the lesser bush baby’s habitat, which makes the fragmentation of its population more likely. New development exacerbates the phenomenon, leaving isolated groups prone to inbreeding and eventually dying out, zoology professor Masters said.

“They eat insects. It’s a really good thing,” she said. “They’re not much of a nuisance to anybody, and the only thing that they can do is good.”

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