Zimbabwe’s national parks attracts tourists from far and wide, but it’s easy to forget that there’s a wealth of wildlife right in our suburbs. Here are a few nocturnal mammals to look out for on your street:
(Cricetomys gambianus, Gambian pouched rat). Strictly speaking it is not a true rat but is part of a uniquely African branch of muroid rodents. It gets its name from the hamster-like pouches in its cheeks, which it uses to gather up to several kilograms of food for storage in its burrow. Throughout Africa it is eaten as a delicacy, but it has other uses: landmine and tuberculosis detection, using its incredible sense of smell. A Belgian NGO based in Tanzania developed the concept and trained a team of “HeroRATs”. Since 2003, they have seen service in Mozambique, Thailand, Angola and Cambodia.
(Civettictis civetta, African civet, bvungo). The civet belongs to the same family as genets and mongooses, but is the biggest of the three, resembling a medium-sized dog. It is heavily marked with black stripes, blotches and spots. It is omnivorous, and may eat large quantities of millipedes, which most animals avoid. It marks its territory with a waxy secretion, which has been widely used in the perfume industry.
(Genetta tigrina, large-spotted genet, tshipa). The genet is very cat-like but its pointy snout, long banded tail, and striking spotted coat give it away. It is slender and graceful and although it mainly forages on the ground it is an agile climber and frequently retreats into trees. It commonly lives near human dwellings and sometimes shelters in buildings.
(Galago senegalensis and crassicaudatus, lesser bushbaby and thick-tailed bushbaby, chinhavira and chimhavira). The bushbabies are easily-recognisable tree-dwelling primates. They are extremely agile, leaping up to 5m between branches and seldom descending to the ground. They get extra grip by urinating on their hands, which also marks their territory. The thick-tailed bushbaby is by far the larger of the species, and its raucus screams sound uncannily like a crying baby. It eats fruit, insects and occasional small vertibrates, whereas the lesser bushbaby lives mainly on insects. Acacia gum is an important food for both species in winter months when insects are scarce. It is not unusual for bushbabies to nest in roof spaces of buildings.
(Potamochoerus porcus, humba, nguruve). The bushpig is the largest animal in the subregion to build nests. It lives in dense bush, frequently along rivers as it is dependant on water and is a strong swimmer. Its strong snout helps it dig for roots but it also eats fallen fruit, eggs, birds, rats, snakes, and even lambs and kids. It can be a major crop pest, especially with no carnivores around and is very dangerous when cornered or wounded.
For the best chances of seeing these animals, head out on foot or bicycle in the few hours before and after midnight armed with a powerful torch. The light reflected in their eyes often betrays them when their stealth and camouflage make them otherwise undetectable. Look closely for runways through thick vegetation and river reeds, and remember to scan trees and garden walls if you want to see bushbabies and genets.
The size, shape, grouping, colour and contents of droppings tell us a lot about an animal. Sprinkle a layer of flour on pathways and check back for footprints.
It’s important to remember that many of these animals act as nature’s pest controls and by building impenetrable walls, destroying woodland, and cultivating and developing on wetlands we risk driving them out of our city altogether.
What animals have you seen in your neighbourhood? Don’t forget the birds, reptiles and amphibians!
Photograph by Lucy Broderick