Fauna Folklore: Animal Myths & Legends

Natural World Safaris

01 Aug 2018

The subject of superstition

Many animals worldwide have become the subject of superstition and come under attack due to their unusual appearances or strange characteristics, while others have been placed on pedestals due to traditional beliefs that they hold special wisdom or power.

In this blog we look at some of the more peculiar creatures on the planet and the myths and legends that surround them.

Aye-aye

The aye-aye is a weird and wonderful creature that can only be found on the island of Madagascar. They are nocturnal primates who live in trees, rarely ever coming down to the ground. Not an attractive lemur; they are small, weighing only approximately two kilos and their bushy tails are almost double the size of their body. They are easily recognisable as they have big beady eyes, long bony fingers and opposable big toes enabling them to dangle from trees. Lacking the cuddly Disney qualities of their dancing cousins, the aye-aye looks like more of a Frankenstein hybrid between a koala and rat with rodent-like teeth! It’s not all about looks though – the aye-aye has the largest relative brain size of any lemur. Previously thought to be extinct, this endangered species was rediscovered in 1961.

Mythology surrounding these inquisitive creatures has contributed to their dramatic decline in numbers and their classification as 'Endangered' on the IUCN Red List. Malagasy legend contends that the aye-aye is a harbinger of death, with the appearance of one predicting the ill fate of a villager. Many believe that the aye-aye will sneak into your room at night, piercing your heart with its long, slender middle finger. As a result, these relatively tame creatures stumbling into villages in search of food were often killed on sight by individuals who wished to avoid the curse. Aye-ayes are not scared of humans and are often intrigued by the sight of them, completely unaware of the danger we pose.

In addition to negative superstition, the factor of huge deforestation across the country has meant the aye-aye population has been devastated. Although they are now protected by law in Madagascar, due to the abundance of stigma attached to them they are still in a great deal of danger, with less than 2000 left in the wild.

Fortunately, most people heading to Madagascar in search of the aye-aye will consider a sighting to be extremely lucky; these nocturnal creatures are quite elusive. At the Kianjavato Lemur Project, a lemur conservation reserve that Natural World Safaris has unique access to, there is a resident mother and baby aye-aye. Finding them involves a steep trek up into the hills at night with the sounds of the forest echoing around you; not for the faint-hearted, but extremely rewarding. 


Aye-Aye Fast Facts

Scientific Name: Daubentonia madagascariensis

Distribution: Madagascar

Suggested Itinerary: Madagascar Small Group Safari

Jaguar


Jaguars are the largest big cat in the Western Hemisphere. They possess one of the strongest bites in the animal kingdom, which allows them to kill armoured prey like caiman and even break open the shells of turtles. Inspiring both fear and awe in the people with whom they shared the landscape for millennia, the jaguar came to be worshipped by Indigenous cultures throughout Central and South America. The Aztecs utilised an elite military unit known as the jaguar warriors; Amazonian tribes drank jaguar blood to absorb the power of the predator, and communed with its spirit during psychedelic experiences; and the Maya pantheon included multiple jaguar deities associated with everything from war to midwifery.

Depictions of jaguars are particularly prominent in Mesoamerican cultures, where the predator was closely tied with shamanism and the concept of transformation. The shaman’s role in society was to act as an intermediary between the physical and spiritual worlds; as the jaguar was said to possess a similar transgressive ability, various figures – particularly those associated with the Olmec culture – depict the shaman transforming into a jaguar. Today, respect for jaguars is retained by many Indigenous peoples, but urbanisation has led them into conflict with humans who kill the cats to protect their families or livestock, while the growing demand for teeth, claws, skins and other body parts for use in traditional Asian medicine has implicated this animal in the insidious (and international) illegal wildlife trade.

The jaguar has reigned long in the consciousness of humans in the Americas, and even today we seek it out for reasons running the gamut from the nefarious to the transcendental. Ranging from the United States to Argentina and more or less everywhere in between, jaguars are both pervasive and elusive. No-one knows how many live here – estimates range from 15,000 to 100,000. Their preferred habitat is dense forest, and their camouflaged coat allows them to blend in well with their surroundings. They are an ambush predator, observing their prey while lurking amidst the shadows of dawn and dusk. They hunt on land, in water, and in trees, something no other cat does. As one of the world’s most iconic species, their place in humanity’s cultural and spiritual history is matched by few other animals.


Jaguar Fast Facts

Scientific Name: Panthera onca

Distribution: 18 countries throughout Central and South America

Suggested Itinerary: Tailor-made safaris to Brazil in the Amazon and/or Pantanal

pangolin


These fascinating creatures – which comprise eight extant species living through much of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia – are also known as scaly anteaters, due to the large, protective keratin scales that cover their skin. Although genetically unrelated, they are similar in appearance to the armadillo of the Americas, and both animals are capable of rolling into a tight ball to protect themselves from predators.

Pangolins are insectivorous, using their strong claws and long tongues (which can reach up to 16” in larger species) to prey mostly on anthills and termite mounds. A single individual can consume between 140 and 200 grams of insects per day. Most pangolins are nocturnal and live generally solitary lives, which have garnered them a reputation as being shy, secretive creatures. Despite being widespread, sightings are rare, and in some places tradition tells that spotting one will bring you seven years of good luck! Our MD, Will Bolsover, was lucky enough to have such a sighting during his most recent trip to Botswana. In Chinese folklore, pangolins are said to be able to travel the world undetected using a network of subterranean tunnels.

Unfortunately, the pangolin’s place in Asian and African folklore has contributed to a sharp decline in their population. Their keratin scales – a unique feature among mammals – as well as their blood, body parts and even unborn foetuses have made them a target for the illegal wildlife trade, as they are thought to possess medicinal qualities. Pangolin meat is also sought as a delicacy in some parts of Asia, particularly China and Vietnam. As a result, these relatively little-known creatures are in fact the most trafficked animal in the world, even more so than charismatic megafauna like rhinos, elephants and leopards.


Pangolin Fast Facts

Scientific Family: Manidae

Distribution: 17 countries in Asia and 31 countries in Africa

Suggested Itinerary: Dzanga-Sangha Gorilla Tracking Safari or tailor-made safaris throughout much of Africa, including Botswana and South Africa

Pink River Dolphin


There are five different types of dolphin which live within the Amazon Basin; the pink river dolphin is seen to be the most intelligent as it has 40% more brain capacity than a human. Also referred to as "botos", these cetaceans are easily distinguished by their long and narrow mouths as well as their unique colouring - they can be anything from light pink to grey or brown. The feature which truly distinguishes them from ocean-dwelling dolphins is the unfused vertebrae in their spine, which gives them the ability to turn their heads left and right, as well as look down. Although most river dolphins are almost blind (most likely due to the muddy waters), pink river dolphins are thought to have better vision than other species.

These dolphins have been protected largely due to the fact that locals believe bad luck will come to anyone who hunts them or eats them. Botos are often viewed as shapeshifters that are able to turn into humans whenever they want. Superstitions vary: some people say that they were previously humans, some that they are going to become humans and others that they collect the souls of those who die in rivers. The main belief surrounding the dolphins is that they change into young men during the night to seduce local women. Many unexplained pregnancies have been blamed upon the dolphins, as well as birth deficiencies such as babies’ scalps not forming entirely, which has been interpreted as a blowhole forming.

Children and adults alike are warned to stay away from the riverbank as the dolphins can drag you underwater to the city of Encante, where you will never be able to return to land again.


Pink river dolphin fast facts

Scientific Name: Inia geoffrensis
Distribution: Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela
Suggested Itinerary: Tailor-made safaris to Brazil, such as our Pantanal & Amazon Wildlife Safari

Polar Bear


The polar bear features prominently in the mythologies and traditional beliefs of Indigenous peoples throughout the Arctic. The Inuit – who have historically inhabited Canada, Greenland and Alaska – have plenty of tales associated with the species. Some legends tell of those who were half-man and half-bear, beings who would shed their bearskins upon entering their igloo, rendering them able to walk and talk like humans. The polar bear was regarded as powerful and wise, a predator who was both venerated and hunted, with their meat, fur and other body parts providing Arctic peoples with the means to survive in the harsh frozen wilderness.

Nanuq (the name for the polar bear in the Inuktitut language) was the master of bears, a deity who could grant both success and failure in the polar bear hunt. Legend tells that if a polar bear was treated with respect upon being killed, it would share this news with other bears, who would in turn deign to be killed by the hunter. Paying respect to a bear’s soul took the form of hanging its skin in a special place in the house for several days, while its spirit was offered tokens: weapons and hunting tools for male bears, and needle cases and skin scrapers for female bears.

If this was done correctly, the bear would obtain the souls of the tools (tatkoit), which they would take with them into the afterlife. If a hunter violated these practices, mistreated the bear or failed to honour its spirit, Nanuq would see to it that bears stay away from the offender in question, with his hunts ending in failure. The polar bear has remained an important part of Indigenous cultures for millennia; it is portrayed in myth and legend as both spiritually powerful and closely akin to humans.


Polar Bear Fast Facts

Scientific Name: Ursus maritimus

Distribution: Greenland, Svalbard, Alaska, Canada and Russia

Suggested Itinerary: Svalbard Polar Bear Explorer

Slender Loris


The slender loris is a primitive primate that resides in India and Sri Lanka. The range of the closely related slow lorises stretches from Northeast India to Indochina, including the Philippines, Borneo and Sumatra.

These days seeing a wild slender loris near Sigiriya in Sri Lanka's Cultural Triangle is a real privilege, as their numbers are declining. Slender lorises have long been seen as bad omens by local communities, due to their strange appearance and nocturnal nature. Creeping through the trees at night with large eyes, no tail and a vaguely ape-like appearance meant that many were scared of these little creatures.

Despite being somewhat scared of these animals, thousands of lorises are caught by locals for use in traditional medicine. In countries like Cambodia it is believed that eating loris flesh can treat leprosy. Tonics made from lorises are marketed as a treatment to heal wounds and broken bones, or to help women regain strength after childbirth. In Sri Lanka, loris body parts are used to ward off the "evil eye" or to cast curses. Loris tears – extracted while roasting the animals alive – are also an ingredient in love potions.

As with aye-ayes, local law now protects these primates from hunters, but enforcement of these laws is rather slack.

A major turn of events has seen lorises move from omens to being taken from the wild as cute pets, which is causing the species to become even more vulnerable. Many people are producing videos of lorises being tickled under their armpits – which may look enjoyable – but this is actually torture for these little animals. They are putting their arms up as a means of defence, not pleasure. It is essential that awareness of this issue is raised to help protect this increasingly endangered species.


Slender loris fast facts

Scientific Family: Loris
Distribution: India and Sri Lanka
Suggested Itinerary: Tailor-made safaris to Sri Lanka, including our Sri Lanka Family Adventure Safari

Snow Leopard


Known as the "grey ghost of the mountains", the solitary snow leopard is shrouded in mystery and its elusiveness has prompted much speculation and legend over the years. Leopards are generally said to be closely linked to shamans, and the snow leopard totem in particular represents inner knowing and respect for the mysteries of life and death.

Indigenous beliefs state that snow leopards remove people’s sins from past lives, and that if a snow leopard is killed, the sins will be transferred to the killer’s present life. As a result, snow leopards are hunted somewhat less by locals than other endangered creatures; however, if a snow leopard attacks someone's livestock, it is likely local communities will retaliate. The major factor affecting snow leopard population in the past was poaching for their pelts, particularly by Russian hunters throughout the 20th century. Trade of this kind has fortunately become illegalm so this will hopefully reduce poaching and threats to these animals.

If you are lucky enough to spot one of these camouflaged big cats roaming through the mountains during your Himalayan adventure, you will have had the good fortune to see one of the most mysterious creatures on the planet.


Snow leopard fast facts

Scientific Name: Panthera uncia

Distribution: 12 countries in Central Asia

Suggested Itinerary: In Search of the Snow Leopard in Ladakh

Vampire Bat


There are three different types of vampire bats, each of which is native to the Americas, although none live north of Mexico. They are the only mammal that can fly, and can live either by themselves or in colonies, but always within the warmth of a dark cave. Vampire bats are nocturnal creatures and feed entirely upon blood, except for when they are first born. They do not have many teeth, due to their liquid diet, but those they have are razor sharp. The bats use these teeth not to bite but to make a precise cut in their victims’ skin, allowing the blood to ooze out. Contrary to common belief, the bats do not suck out blood, but simply lap up any blood which is released by the cut; the bat’s saliva contains enzymes which act as an anti-coagulant, preventing the blood from clotting.

There are many different beliefs surrounding these vampire bats depending upon which area of the world you are exploring. Within South America, an ancient Mayan cult had a God of the Caves named Camazotz; it was claimed that he had the body of a man and the head and wings of a bat.

Vampire bats are often linked to death. In some places they are seen as the souls of people, including sorcerers, criminals and the unburied dead. There are a huge amount of stories in folklore involving bats, such as: rubbing bat’s blood on your face will help you to see in the dark; powdered bat wings and coconut oil will reduce greying of the hair and baldness; a powdered bat’s heart will stop a bullet; and the contradictory belief that if you swab a gun with a bat’s heart the bullet will never miss.

As you can imagine, many scientists have since proven that these beliefs are just myths rather than reality. In actual fact, some these strange creatures are now considered somewhat endearing, despite – or perhaps because of – their negative connotations.

It’s not all doom and gloom though! Scientists have used the bats' anti-coagulant enzymes  to produce medicine to help heart patients, therefore aiding humans, not maiming or killing them. So maybe we should cut these animals some slack!


vampire bat fast facts

Scientific Family: Desmodontinae
Distribution: Throughout Central and South America, from Mexico to Argentina
Suggested Itinerary: Tailor-made safaris to Brazil

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