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Seeing myself...in the eyes of a monkey

Posted Nov 04 2009 10:03pm
Text and all photos by Sally Kneidel, PhD

A wild adult female vervet monkey in my friend's backyard in South Africa

Primates fascinate me. I love coming face to face with another animal who's so much like me - the good, the bad, and the ugly. I wanted desperately to see monkeys in Africa. It's easy to imagine that they have human feelings, because they do; in fact, mammals in general have emotions similar to our own. Their brains have the same structures as ours; the structures just differ in their relative size. Mammals can experience fear, longing, anger, curiosity, boredom, rivalry or jealousy, frustration, the urge to mate, the urge to nest and nurture their offspring, the fierce drive to protect their young from harm...

A vervet monkey showing fear or an appeasement "grin" at a monkey with a higher rank.
And for those primates and other mammals or birds who are social animals (living in social groups), they feel "pleasure" in the company of one another and in grooming each other. Chimpanzees even clean one another's teeth.

A social group of vervets (photo above) foraging for fruit together in my friend's backyard in South Africa

Africa is a good place to see primates, especially the great apes. South America is a good place too. The Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo Reserve in the Peruvian Amazon has more primates than any other reserve in the world - at least 14, maybe 16 species. Several of them are marmosets or tamarins. Alas, I haven't been there. I haven't seen a profusion of primates on my few trips to Latin America, because I haven't been to the best places. And many of the primates I have seen have been someone's pet, or for sale in the marketplace for a dollar or two. I wrote about the Belen Market in Iquitos in a previous post. Man, that was an eye-opener. The monkeys on string leashes, on human shoulders or laps, and in cages were so sad...and disturbing. I didn't see monkeys on strings or in cages in Africa. I don't know why. Maybe those that are captured are sold as bushmeat.

Anyway, in South Africa this past June, we were really happy to see four species of primates in the bush: vervet monkeys, Chacma baboons, lesser bushbabies, and thick-tailed bushbabies. All of them thrilled and delighted me. Just a few words about the vervet monkeys here, and I'll write about the others later. Vervet monkeys reminded me of the capuchins in Latin America, the famous "organ grinder" monkeys and "helping hand" monkeys for people with quadraplegia.

A white-faced capuchin in Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica. He's angry and threatening because I intruded on his troop's foraging route along the coastal fruit trees.

The size and proportions of vervets are similar to capuchins. And just like capuchins, vervets get into picnic baskets, beach bags, and outdoor kitchens - they're not afraid of mooching off humans, and meddling in human belongings. I heard more than one South African describe vervet monkeys as "pests."

Vervets raiding a neighbor's outdoor kitchen at Satara rest camp in Kruger National Park
(pics above and below)


Vervets searching our outdoor kitchen for food in Punda Maria rest camp in Kruger Park (below).

The vervets wouldn't let me get close to them; when I tried they ran away. All mammals have a "minimum distance" that they'll tolerate. Only the sight or scent of food will make them come closer. Which is unfortunate, since feeding wildlife is almost always a bad idea. It leads to malnutrition, illness, and premature death.

The vervets around our kitchen were persistent. They hung around the perimeter of our porch, waiting for us to go inside.

Finally they scored a piece of bread (below) by opening a bag when we stepped inside for a moment.

I felt bad! But I learned my lesson. Food has to be taken inside or locked up. Without exception!

One day I was sitting on the back steps at my friend's house in South Africa, and I could hear a troop of vervet monkeys coming toward his yard through the trees. Vervets make at least 36 distinct sounds, including barks, chutters, chirps and grunts. Each sound has its own context and meaning. I know that a couple of my friend's neighbors feed the vervets because I've seen them do it. So as soon as the vervets spotted me sitting on the steps, with my feet on the grass, a few of them hopped to the roof and peered down at me, to see what I might have in my lap. Nothing.

The vervets peering down at me from the roof to see if I had any food (photo above).

I didn't shoo them away. I didn't do anything but hold my camera, sit still, and look at them. Pretty soon a few crept closer on the ground, to see what I might toss their way. They came closer, hopeful. Below...interested, but pretending not to be.

Inching closer.

Closer still, but still averting the eyes and feigning disinterest.

Closer indeed, and quite ready for the handout. But, alas, no snacks were forthcoming....and soon they wandered away.

Another time we were at Pafuri Picnic spot in South Africa where an African family was having a fragrant cookout, and vervets converged, on the ground and in the trees. I sat down on a bench nearby and tried to get a decent shot, but failed. Even though they were running around 5 feet from me, hoping I had food (I did not), I got almost no photos. They just wouldn't sit still, or look at me. Monkeys have a way of refusing to look me in the face - it must be taken as a challenge in monkey society to stare at someone, because they rarely do it...to me, anyway. Maybe I just look like a really ugly monkey, and they can't bear to look.

Vervets are interesting socially. They live in family groups of females and young that share and jointly defend a traditional home range. A number of attached males help defend the females and their land from "outsider" males. Babies nurse by sitting between their mothers' legs and suckling both nipples at once.

A nursing mother vervet (above) at the Pafuri picnic spot in Kruger National Park

A mother vervet nursing her baby at Satara Rest Camp, in Kruger Park (above)

A female's social standing is determined by her family's rank. High-ranking families get first choice at any resource in short supply. Females of low-ranking families must defer to even youngsters of higher rank. The lower-ranking females try to improve their lot by hanging out with the "aristocrats" - grooming them, handling their babies, requesting their help to resolve disputes. But adult female vervets spend most of their time with close relatives and others of similar rank.

When male offspring mature, they have to migrate to another troop, usually during the mating season. But vervets of both sexes hate immigrants, and many of the newcomers are killed. A migrating male has a better chance if he has an older brother already in the troop he moves to. If he's not accepted, he tries again with another troop.

Males compete with one another for social and reproductive dominance. When a group stops to feed in a grove of fruit trees, the dominant male may sit with his intimidating red penis and blue scrotum displayed as a message to intruders "Mature male on guard. Keep out!"

A dominant male (above) displays his brightly-colored genitals to keep other monkeys away from the sausage fruit (I think) he's eating.

A female or younger male vervet (above) wants a bite of the fruit but is afraid to approach.

I wish I had more shots of vervets completely in the wild, but this is where I saw them....around human habitations, mostly inside Kruger Park, where they're protected.

What's their conservation status? How are they getting along in southern Africa where they're often seen as pests? I spent some time googling "vervet monkeys conservation status" and didn't find a whole lot. The most informative source I found was Wikipedia, under the " Vervet Monkey" entry, "Protection and Conservation"paragraphs.

I read there that vervet monkeys are not monitored and their true status is unknown. I believe it said that they are listed in CITES Appendix 2 as a species that could become threatened if their populations are not monitored. Below is a quote from Wikipedia, slightly edited for clarity.

"In spite of low predator populations in many areas where human development has encroached on wild territories, vervet monkeys are killed by electricity pylons, vehicles, dogs, pellet guns, poison and bullets, and are trapped for traditional medicine, bush meat and for biomedical research. The vervet monkey has a complex and fragile social system - their persecution is thought to have impacted on troop structures and diminishing numbers.

"According to recent distribution maps, the vervet monkey is quickly disappearing in the Western Cape of South Africa where they are heavily persecuted. The Darwin Primate Group is the only rescue and rehabilitation center for vervets in this province, with their primary goals being to find methods for humans and wildlife to co-exist, to educate the public so that the severe persecution of monkeys and baboons in this province is confronted, and to help injured and orphaned vervet monkeys in need. The center has a volunteer program to help with its goals.

"The Vervet Monkey Foundation in South Africa is working on conservation and protection of the vervets. The foundation makes use of volunteer workers from western countries.

"There is also an invasive breeding population in Florida. It is believed that they escaped from the Tarzan Set in the 1950's, or possibly a road show."

!!! I found that last paragraph a bit surprising! Where in Florida, I wonder?

Anyway....vervet monkeys are adaptable to human settlements, more so than most wild animals. Who knows what lies in store for them. But the spirit of persecution that seems to prevail in southern Africa reminds me of the history of the American wolf, who was hunted to virtual extinction in the United States. They've only recently rebounded, in a limited fashion, by the airlifting of Canadian wolves into Wyoming, and their slow natural migration southward from Canada after hunting was banned. Now hunting has been legalized again....

Wildlife needs our help. My husband and I spend all of our charity dollars on wildlife, and preservation of prime wildlife habitat. Consider making a donation to your favorite wildlife charity today. Some good ones include the World Wildlife Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, TRAFFIC, Conservation International, the Jane Goodall Institute, the Rainforest Action Network. Or pick a primate organization, one of the vervet organizations mentioned above. Lots of people are trying to change our present trajectory and find a different future that can include wildlife. Be one of them.

Source for vervet social behavior: Richard D. Estes The Safari Companion; A Guide to the Watching of African Mammals. Chelsea Green Publishing Company.

Key words:: South Africa primates vervet monkeys primate conservation

All photos by Sally Kneidel, PhD

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