As we understand it, lemurs live in Madagascar where there are no monkeys, and monkeys and apes inhabit the rest of the world, where there are no lemurs. – But this is not strictly true.
There is one lemur species living in Southern Africa which is sometimes referred to as the “nagapie”. The Galagos, also known as bushbabies or nagapies (meaning “little night monkeys” in Afrikaans), are small, nocturnal primates native to continental Africa and are classified Genera Otolemur – so yes, they are lemurs and not monkeys or apes. The South African name nagapie derives from the construct that these bright-eyed mammals are almost exclusively seen at night.
In Madagascar lemurs were spared from having to compete with monkeys because at the time of its detachment from the Gondwana land mass, monkeys had not yet made their entrance on the world stage. The intelligence, aggression, and deceptiveness of the various breeds of monkeys which evolved later in Africa and elsewhere, gave them an advantage over existing primitive primates in exploiting the environment, and drove the lemurs to near extinction.
Lemurs arrived in Madagascar around 62 to 65 mya by rafting on mats of vegetation and they have since proliferated because they have no foraging rivals or predators.
Of course, all this lemur-wisdom was sorely lacking when I travelled with a school friend in my early childhood to (then) Bulawayo in “Rhodesia of old”. After our holiday we travelled by train back to Johannesburg where, on route, I purchased a nagapie through the train window from an urchin at one of the station stops, This was an entirely impulsive decision because I simply looked into the big eyes of this marvellous animal and decided that I needed to befriend him and introduce him to the family and friends back home. I had never seen anything like a lemur in real life and this big-eyed boy I think, cost me in the region of five Rand. It happened so fast that I had no time to process the inevitable repercussions of this harebrained purchase until it was too late.
For example, how did I imagine I would manage to conceal this animal from the customs official who would be visiting our cabin at the South African border? Also how would my cabin-mates feel about sharing their journey with a frisky but mildly terrified minkey. – I really had no idea, but suddenly it started leaping about causing mayhem and distress to my friend and to our co-travellers.
“Galagos are fast, agile creatures adapted to foraging and bounding through thick bushes…” – Not suited to confinement or to automated locomotion, so it eventually became necessary to try to restrain this lemur… but how?
Another problem I would face later on was that the nagapie is a night forager and therefore does not live by the same clock as we do, so night time saw this animal’s antics gaining in momentum with us becoming increasingly desperate until at about 3am through sheer fatigue, I managed to fall asleep.
I was awoken suddenly by a small lemur foot (or hand) scratching at my head and his huge eyes looking into mine with great bewilderment and I knew what had to be done. So, in the very wee hours of morning I released this nagapie at some desolate railway siding somewhere in Zimbabwe not far from the Beitbridge border, into the cold chill air and continued my journey homewards.
I often reflect on this strange encounter and wonder whether this small creature could possibly have survived on its own, dislocated from familiar habitat and troop-mates, and I feel sad. However, I console myself with the thought that he was probably better off on his own in the wild than he would have been if he had remained in the captivity of his previous custodian. I also recently felt further comforted on learning that in both variety and abundance, the bush babies are currently the most successful primitive primates in Africa, according to the African Wildlife Foundation. Sadly they do not exist where I live, and even if they did, they are only to be seen at night. – pictures from Wikipaedia