In 2008 when I found myself in the privileged position of nurturing seven orphaned infant vervet monkeys, information on rehabilitation was hard to find. The most reputable established vervet sanctuary had learnt valuable lessons some twenty years earlier when they’d released seven troops into the wild after keeping groups of orphans in captivity for a four to five years. None of the released troops survived. This shows the extent to which vervet monkeys rely on learned behaviour to be rehabilitated successfully.
Without adequate information, I was forced to rely on my past experience with baboons, observing wild vervet behaviour and what I can only term my “instinct”.
DPG VERVET MONKEYS
Ideally, a rescued vervet troop will be formed according to the appropriate gender/age ratio, but in my case, I had no adults or sub-adults at the start, hence was required to act as surrogate mother to the seven infant orphans that were brought to me in 2007. Two factors worked in our favour; there was no wild troop to interfere in the process and we were situated on 17 hectares of indigenous habitat bordering the Tsitsikamma National Park. Hours were spent in the surrounding forest daily with the seven babies as they grew; their behaviour and progress was monitored carefully. Eight months passed before I was able to add a two year old ex-pet female and one year old male to the troop. Newcomers were first placed in an enclosure as they worked out a relationship with their new free roaming troop. Once they had integrated into the troop, they were released. As time moved on, more and more orphans as well as adults were integrated to this troop who had become semi-wild by 2010 as they roamed freely in the surrounding forest, challenged by predators such as eagles, snakes, leopard, caracal and honey badger.
A few years into this process, a couple of unreleasable monkeys arrived – ex-pets and partially disabled individuals. We erected a large enclosure set close to the forest where this group could interact with the wilderness through the protected fencing. The free-roaming troop interacted with this group as did the wild baboon troop who visited often.
The baby baboon orphans that came to us during 2010 roamed freely while being monitored closely and spent their nights protected by an enclosure. These orphans – unlike most in SA rescue centres – had the privilege or roaming freely, interacting with wild baboons and experiencing close encounters with predators.
What I learnt from this rehabilitation method:
- Free roaming rescue vervet monkeys do not suffer the extent of health problems that captive ones do.
- Free roaming vervet monkeys do not experience the level of inter-troop injuries that captive ones do as they are able to flee and hide when targeted by others.
- Free roaming rescued monkeys are exposed to predators and natural food sources from an early age. If they are monitored, influenced and protected by the rehabilitator, they will learn to survive through a true understanding of the challenges of living wild.
- The monkeys understood that crossing into neighboring land was dangerous and didn’t do this as a troop. However transient males followed their natural inclination and moved away into more dangerous areas when reaching sexual maturity. This became my most pressing concern; protecting these males when the law did not.
- The troop remained sustainable throughout the years due to being exposed to natural predators. Although I found it difficult accepting the rare death due to predation, this factor is natural and an inevitable part of living in the wild. As most rehabilitation centres in South Africa become over populated with a backlog of orphans in captivity, I was determined not to land up in that situation. Vervet populations are severely damaged in the Western Cape which ensured that the DPG would not become as overpopulated as rescue centres in KZN for example. Cons:
- The neighbors were mostly anti-primate and the area was zoned as “agricultural” in spite of bordering the protected Tsitsikamma forest.
- Nature Conservation legislation allowed residents in the area to persecute wild primates although police law made it illegal to shoot in a built up area. In spite of the danger of rehabilitating vervets this way, the benefits outweigh the problems found when keeping monkeys in captivity. The vervets had a happy, meaningful social life and were never in need of enrichment. Their food was supplemented and they were protected as far as was possible.
Young primates that were caged at times and allowed to roam freely at others had no fear of enclosures and would often choose captivity (when enclosure doors were left open for example) above freedom. The reason appeared to be a need for protection as well as food (low ranking primates entering an enclosure for food were likely to be protected from high ranking individuals who would normally not allow them easy access to favourite foods). Certain wild baboons also exhibited this behaviour, showing total fearlessness for the enclosure.
In spite of the obstacles we faced, our primates led a complex social life that embraced both freedom and protection up until we were forced to move in 2012 and the project came to a halt.