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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.

“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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