Mike Unwin goes in search of the greater bushbaby
Early evening in the bush. The first stars appear overhead as the last embers of sunset fade on the horizon. Above the crackle of your campfire comes the discreet chirrup of a scops owl. A perfect moment: serenity and reflection at the end of a bumpy, dusty day on safari.
But not for long. Suddenly, a loud shrieking rips through your reverie. Once you’ve recovered your wits – and your barbecue tongs – you recognise the voice. It’s a bushbaby. True, those ghastly cries do sound a little baby-like. But surely no human infant could ever produce a noise of such tortured anguish.
Bushbabies – also known as galagos – are small, arboreal, African primates with close ties to the lemurs of Madagascar and lorises of southern Asia. They feed on insects and tree sap, gleaned on nightly forays through the canopy, and avoid competition with monkeys and apes – their larger, more sophisticated, primate relatives – by being exclusively nocturnal.
Today scientists recognise up to 22 species of bushbaby, many of which have highly restricted distributions and can be separated only by their dentition.
Thankfully, the one shattering your campfire idyll is easily identified. That horrendous noise – the one from which the whole group gets its name – can only be the greater, or thick-tailed, bushbaby (Otolemur crassicaudatus). This is much the largest species, and common in well-watered regions across much of southern and eastern Africa, especially along watercourses.
So, you’ve recognised the voice, but how do you spot the vocalist? Shine a torch up into the tree – or, if you’re on a night drive, follow your guide’s spotlight – and, with luck, you’ll spot the animal’s eyeshine: two glowing orbs of orange. Taking care not to shine the beam directly into those eyes, raise your binoculars and you’ll see a furry creature the size of a small cat, with nimble fingers, bat-like ears and a thick tail twice the length of its body.
You’ll have to be quick, though. Bushbabies can shift at serious speed through the branches. Smaller species bound along in a series of upright leaps but the greater bushbaby tends to run on all fours. It marks its territory as it goes by urinating on its hands and anointing its pathways with scent – one very good reason why bushbabies don’t make great house pets.
In some lodges, greater bushbabies have become habituated. They may even visit the bar for hand-outs, guaranteeing excellent views – even though this may feel like cheating. But wherever you hear that banshee wail after hours, it is always worth scouting around. At Kruger’s busy Skukuza Camp, for example, I have often seen greater bushbabies descend like gremlins from the fig trees to bound around chalet roofs after guests are tucked up inside.
For those of a nervous disposition, any sighting is at least a reassurance that those spine-chilling screams come from a small, furry animal and not some unspeakable nocturnal atrocity. You can return to your campfire – perhaps even treat yourself to a calming beer – safe in the knowledge that no bawling infant needs rescuing from the treetops.
To get the best out of your wildlife or safari experience, Travel Africa encourages the use of a good quality binocular. To further enhance the experience and capture great memories, take an iPhone adapter to connect your iPhone to your binocular.
This column is sponsored by Swarovski Optik, the premier range of optics for wildlife in glorious close-up. To see their full range visit www.swarovskioptik.com
Mike Unwin is an award-winning travel writer and author who has an insatiable fascination with wildlife and animal behaviour.