In Madagascar lives a creature that looks so bizarre it is no wonder that the local Malagasy and Sakalava people believe it to be a symbol of death. The menacing omen comes in the shape of an aye-aye: Its piercing orange eyes, bony fingers, large incisors and bat-like ears definitely give this nocturnal primate a unique appearance. Some tribesmen even go so far as to claim that the aye-aye will sneak into your home at night and use its slender middle finger to pierce your heart.
These beliefs couldn’t be further from the truth. The creature that the local villagers are so petrified to come across spends most of its time searching out grubs, nuts, nectar and fruits rather than people to condemn to death.
Unfortunately, superstitions associated with the aye-aye result in the animal being killed on sight. It doesn’t help that the aye-aye is almost tame when compared to other wild animals. Aye-ayes are known to walk right up to naturalists and into busy villages, raiding farms for coconuts, mangoes or lychees. This makes them an easy target for individuals who want to avoid the curse by killing the primate.
In Gerald Durrel’s short novel, “The Aye-Aye and I”, Durrel describes how an aye-aye fearlessly crawled onto his shoulder and proceeded to gently probe the inside his ear for a tasty bug. Finding nothing, the aye-aye simply clamored back up into the trees with what is described as a disappointing grunt.
The aye-aye displays a unique foraging behavior when searching for its preferred food: It will tap at trees with its finger and use echolocation to find any grubs hiding underneath the bark. Once found, the aye-aye will rasp away at the wood with its teeth and insert the specially adapted middle finger into the larvae’s burrow to pull it out.
Naturalists once claimed the species to be extinct in the wild. Thankfully this is not the case, but aye-ayes are still a threatened species. It is disappointing to find an animal killed simply because of a superstition. Ancient beliefs are still strong in various parts of the world and it can be a hindrance to attempts at preserving a species. It is a huge challenge working with cultures in third-world countries. Politics are always complicated, but it needs to be done.
With habitats shrinking, unlucky aye-ayes stumble into local villages more and more often and if found, don’t make it out. Hopefully, local people have begun to realize that no aye-aye has ever singled out a person to die.