Samangos & Toads of Hogsback

by Norman Morrissey

A couple of interesting local features are the Samango monkeys, and a toad we have here that is much the Samangos' evolutionary countertruth.

Let me tell you about our Samangos first: they're unique in anyone's book, because they act towards people unlike any other population anywhere. Samango troops in the southern part of South Africa live in an archipelago of remnant mountain forests dotted down from southern KwaZulu-Natal to Hogsback. Originally the troops would have had almost continuous ranges, but the climate has dried drastically in the past 10 000 years. Only islands of montane Podocarpus forest remained by the time our stone-age folk were consolidating their cultures. What we have now is what the farmers and loggers have left us, bless them!

In the Struik fieldguide to South African mammals, samangos are described as being normally only heard as they flee from people, seldom seen. We have at least three troops in territories about the village of Hogsback, who will let themselves be seen constantly. They are wary of people generally, but no automatic panic and flight. One troop of about 12 -14 individuals spends a lot of time on my place (no dogs or cats). They generally sleep here, and get a good bit of food from my fruit and nuts, which I leave for them. This has extended their breeding by at least a month, on into May, when I've seen a newborn not more than a few days old (the mother carries them then in one hand: sleek, black samango palm-length mites).

And they tolerate me quite well, if I don't make sudden moves or noises. They drink from my birdbath in a distinct pecking-order; the youngsters now about 2 years old play on the woodpile at my kitchen window. Having the logs roll and clatter seems great fun. The ones from early last summer have a kindergarten group with one grown female as mentor (who is very good with the little brats, one jumped Teacher and scragged her round the neck, and she just shook her head when he'd bounced away).

The point is, they've adapted their behaviour to take advantage of our village trees and gardens, and the dividends they reap are like having a mall set up next to their normal beats. Some zoologists did voiceprints on them, in case there's a local race developing; but it's really animals learning new routes, a sign of intelligence and inventiveness - a brisk openness to the world's opportunities modifying instinct.

The toads are at the other end of the evolutionary track. They spend most of the year asleep underground, and wake for a while, when the rains first come, to mate, spawn, and go to sleep again. You turn them up completely asleep sometimes, like stubby-legged potatoes. They have faces like knights' helmets, with eyes that are like pitchy-deep pools when they open. To look into those eyes is to see sight at the very beginning of its history, just the faintest, palest glimmer of something down in the depths that's so old and primitive it makes you shiver. They can burrow straight down like moles, and vanish just as quickly; but those eyes are eerie with something that makes you feel your own darkest reptilian roots. It is pure instinct peering out. They haven't changed since long before the rocks around here formed. They are only just conscious - so far from the samangos' adaptiveness, they make you feel how immense a slow clamber of intelligence Life has been through to get to the higher species.

I once watched a Cape robin driving a feral cat off my land, hopping to just above its head as it slunk away, the robin imitating the snake-warning cry that bulbuls use to rally birds to mob boomslangs when there are squabs in nests. The robin was using an interspecific language to do a job of work - denouncing a threat in terms all other birds understand. That's avine Esperanto. The samangos use an immense range of vocalisations, with almost Chinese shifts of tone, from birdlike twitterings to the bark of warning. They talk to each other a great deal. They understand each other, like the birds understand the bulbul.

All over you've this active interchange of mood and information - and down under the ground there's the sleeping toad like a bulb that is only just mentally animate. When you stand between the two bounds, the miracle of the slow grope towards intelligence back in ages past makes you truly humble.

Evolution becomes a process you can view only with an awe that leaves you with no need to have Gods about to make the earth feel sacred.