aye aye middle finger

THE CREATURE WITH THE CREEPY MIDDLE FINGER – THE AYE AYE

Red gleaming eyes, a black bushy tail, and a middle finger that seems to defy the rules of nature… where can you find this harbinger of gloom and doom? Why, in Madagascar, of course! The Aye Aye is a species of lemur and is the world’s largest nocturnal primate, but spotting one is incredibly rare, especially since most Malagasy unfortunately see them as a symbol of death due to cultural taboos, or fady. They are now listed as endangered, but work is being done to protect these incredibly unique primates. If you’re fascinated by weird and wonderful creatures and want to find out precisely what makes them so exceptional, keep reading…

The Aye Aye is only found in certain areas of Madagascar – mostly in the northern, central-western and southern parts of the island nation – with Masoala being a haven. Its long, hooked middle finger, which isn’t found on any other lemur species, serves an important function when it comes to sourcing and searching for food. Aye Ayes are almost like woodpeckers in that they tap the trees and then use echo-location to find rotting or hollow spots where insects and larvae have made their home. Their sharp teeth gnash open the wood, then the elongated, swivelling middle finger scoops out the grub, and the Aye Aye nibbles on its fare.

Unfortunately for the Aye Aye it is not the most attractive of the lemur family, or any animal group, really. With its greyish skin sparsely dotted with wiry black hair, creepy yellow eyes that glow red in the dark, and crooked pointy teeth, it certainly won’t be winning any beauty competitions. Its appearance also doesn’t do it any favours when it comes to the local Malagasy people. Most Malagasy see Aye Aye as a sign of doom and, in the past, have abandoned entire villages if one was spotted close by. Their association with death may have to do with their bloodcurdling looks or even their propensity to feast on the nuts of Canarium trees typically found around Malagasy graves. These trees are considered fady or sacred by the Malagasy so they are never chopped down. Thus it is not uncommon to see Aye Aye assembled around tombs.

aye aye

Fady is inherent throughout Malagasy culture and can be translated as taboo or sacred, covering many customs and traditions and providing a foundation for moral guidelines. If something is considered fady, it either needs to be protected or avoided. In the Aye Aye’s case: avoided, shunned and feared. The fear and hatred of Aye Aye is so intense in some areas that the general consensus is “the only good Aye Aye is a dead Aye Aye” or, in Malagasy, “Magotamba hita, miseo tsy tsara” which means “to see the animal is no good”. So while many species of lemur are protected by fady, when it comes to the Aye Aye, they are often sadly killed with their bodies displayed on spikes to ward off evil spirits.

However, in some areas of Madagascar, this fady regarding the Aye Aye does not exist. It is strongest in the north and as you head further south, it becomes less taboo. In some parts of the country, the Aye Aye is only seen as dangerous if it leaves its natural habitat of the forest – in the forest where they belong, they are seen as harmless. Promisingly, some of these communities have become committed to protecting the rare primates as they recognise their unique features and are aware of their appeal to foreign visitors who have never seen something so fantastic and freaky. In some cases, Aye Aye have been relocated to areas where they are not fady as a last measure resort to protect them. There are also organisations such as the SAVA Conservation Project which works to educate Malagasy people about the Aye Aye and other feared animals to change negative attitudes around them.

As the creature with more myths and legends surrounding it than any other animal in Madagascar, spotting one can be a fascinating and rewarding experience. As they are nocturnal, travellers to the country should consider booking a guided night walk either in Andasibe National Park or keep a look out in the evenings when staying in remote, forested locations. Just be careful it doesn’t point its creepy finger at you…

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