Fauna Folklore: Animal Myths & Legends

Hannah Champion

31 oct. 2015

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. On the contrary, other animals such as jaguars, snakes and spirit bears have been placed on pedestals due to native beliefs that they hold special wisdom or power.

This October 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 ‘threatened’ status. Malagasy legend believes 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 want 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.



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 as there are 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. In the Kianjavato 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

Animal type: mammal

Scientific name: Daubentonia madagascariensis

Found: Madagascar

See wild aye aye's

Amazon Pink River Dolphin

There are five different types of dolphins 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. Sometimes named 'botos', these pink dolphins 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 the sea dolphins is the fact that their vertebrae is not completed solid; meaning that they have the ability to turn their heads left and right as well as looking down. Although most river dolphins are almost blind (most likely due to the muddy waters), pink river dolphins are thought to have better vision.

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 ‘shape-shifters’ that are able to turn into humans whenever they want; superstitions do vary: some people say that they were previously humans, some that they are going to be humans and others that they collect the souls of those who die in the river. The main belief surrounding the dolphins is that they change into young men during the night to seduce the 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 as their father is a dolphin.  

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

Pink river dolphin fast facts

Animal type: mammal
Scientific name: Inia geoffrensis
Found: Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela
Suggested itinerary: Tailor-made Brazil safari, such as our Pantanal & Amazon Wildlife Safari

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Vampire Bats

There are five different types of vampire bats which can be found all over the world except the Arctic, Antarctic and a few oceanic islands. Bats are the only mammal that can fly; explaining why they can be found in so many countries. They can either live by themselves or in colonies but always within the warmth of a dark cave. The 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 their razor sharp teeth not to bite but to make a precise cut in their victims’ skin to let the blood 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 Madagascar 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.

Common vampire bat fast facts

Animal type: mammal
Scientific name: Desmodus rotundus
Found: Across the globe.
Suggested itinerary: Tailor-made safari in Brazil.

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Loris

The rare loris is a primitive primate that resides in Asia, most notably India, Sri Lanka and south-east Asia.

These days seeing a wild loris near Sigiriya in the cultural triangle in Sri Lanka is real privilege as they are considered an endangered species. However, lorises were long seen as bad omens by the local communities due to their strange appearance and the fact that they are nocturnal animals. Creeping through the trees with large eyes and no tail many were scared of these little creatures. They can produce a poisonous toxin when threatened but rarely attack humans when unprovoked.

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 are also an ingredient in love potions.

As with aye-ayes, local law now protects these primates from hunting 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 defense not pleasure. It is essential that awareness of this issue is raised to help protect this already endangered species.

Slender loris fast facts

Animal type: mammal
Scientific name: Loris tardigradus (Red), Loris lydekkerianus (grey)
Found: Sri Lanka
Suggested itinerary: Tailor-made safari in Sri Lanka.

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Snow Leopard

Known as “Ghosts of the Mountain” 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 you kill them all 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 snow leopard attacks their livestock then it is likely local communities will retaliate. The major factor affecting snow leopard population was poaching for their pelts, particularly by Russian hunters throughout the 20th Century. Trade of this kind has fortunately become illegal so this will hopefully reduce poaching and threats to these animals.



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

Snow leopard fast facts

Animal type: mammal

Scientific name: Uncia uncia

Found: The Himalayas

Suggested itinerary: Small group snow leopard tracking safari



As you can imagine, many scientists have since proven that these beliefs are just malign 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 anti-coagulant enzymes from vampire bats to produce medicine to help heart patients, therefore aiding humans, not maiming or killing them. So maybe we should cut these animals some slack!

Find out more about these unusual holidays or get in touch to book your own unique safari!

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