Time to stop monkeying around

2013-07-15 00:00

WHILE some people adore the cute little grey faces of the vervet monkeys that are often seen roaming around the Midlands, others find the primates a problem as they increasingly resort to troublesome behaviour as their territory is threatened.

Elle Durow of Eco-Focus website recently focused on this issue as the vervet monkey population in the Upper Mpushini Catchment area is causing friction among neighbours.

There are those who do not mind the visiting monkeys and those who are angry because the monkey troops destroy their crops.

Some people would like to have the monkeys trapped, relocated or sterilised, or even killed. Others in the pro-monkey camp are more in favour of a management approach that would entail dissuading the monkeys from stealing crops and harming the natural wildlife in the area.

Like the Cape Town baboons, the Midlands vervet monkeys are an emotive issue as landowners strive to find a way to limit their invasions.

Durow said: “I don’t think that there is any other species that evokes so much emotion and ill-feeling between people as primates. People either love them or hate them.”

Durrow says that some conservationists are alarmed at the environmental damage done to the area, allegedly by the monkey troops. The monkeys have been blamed for negatively affecting the bird populations.

Isolde Mellet — a former director of the Centre for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (Crow), Durban — reported to Birdlife South Africa that in the past four years many species had declined in her two hectare garden.

“Their nests are destroyed and eggs eaten by the troop. Please do not tell me we have taken their natural habitat, as when you go to the Kruger Park where they live, fridges in every camp are encased in steel mash to prevent the monkeys from taking visitors’ food,” Mellet said.

UKZN Professor Colleen Downs is currently studying the impact of vervet monkeys on bird populations. She said: “We are doing artificial nest and nestling calls experiments, but will only have data a year or so down the line.”

Steve Brent, an ornithologist, said bird populations have also been declining in areas where there has been urban sprawl due to housing developments.

He said vervet monkeys do feed on birds’ eggs and hatchlings. However, in nature reserves and conservation areas where there is a large, balanced ecosystem, predation by vervet monkeys has very little impact on bird populations.

An Mpushini resident and game farmer who is gravely concerned about the increasing monkeys is A.P. Smith, the owner of the Boulder Hill Game Farm.

He wrote to Eco-focus and said: “The monkey problem is widespread and our concern about birdlife and other wildlife damage and commercial and crop damage by vervet monkeys is growing by the day.”

Smith says monkeys are also responsible for killing chameleons, bush babies and other species. He said: “We are working on a programme based on trapping and putting the captured monkeys down humanely. There is no other practical solution.”

Smith has received advice from Ezemvelo on the design of the traps and believes that vasectomy is an unlikely solution.

Smith said that the monkeys were not the only problem. He said that the whole environment was out of balance and a more integrated eco-programme should be applied to addressing the issue rather than just addressing one species.

“Last season we lost 33 out of of 42 impala lambs born and this was due to poaching by jackals and caracal. We were forced to introduce a culling programme to eliminate the problem and in the current lambing season very few lambs were attacked.”

He said: “Our immediate neighbours have taken off about 30 wild pig and a few warthog over the last couple of years.

“Their farm is only just over 400 hectares and the pig populations have not been ‘eliminated’. These pigs have devastated their cane and maize crops.”

It is believed that “well intentioned” people have captured wild pigs and warthog — or reared “orphans” and released these into farming areas.

Smith says : “I’ve been wrestling for over 50 years with conservation issues and I believe we have to restore the balance of nature — this means different things in different places.”

Durow, a conservationist, says that the Upper Mpushini Catchment area is home to many species of acacia trees, which are a valuable source of food for the vervet monkeys who feed on the seed pods, sap, flowers and the insects that they attract.

She said: “Most of the large farms in this area are commercial game farms, private nature reserves, stock farms, dairy farms or sugar plantations.

“I believe the monkeys’ increasing numbers may be due to the availability of easy pickings that human activities provide them in the form of garden vegetables, fruit trees, scattered chicken feed, bird feeders and kitchen waste.

“It may seem as if their numbers are increasing, but the opposite may be true because in previous times a large troop was easily 100 monkeys, but today a troop of 25 animals is considered large.”

Durow believes there are humane methods of deterring monkeys which may take time to implement.

These would include darting and relocating, fencing off crops, and only sterilising the alpha male monkeys.

Shesh Roberts of the Tumbili Vervet Monkey Sanctuary does not believe that vervet monkeys cause damage to the ecosystem.

“We have a prolific birdlife on our farm — from our beautiful paradise flycatchers, pied wagtails, the exquisite malachite sunbirds, red bishops, pin-tailed whydahs and, again, even though we have monkeys and 12 dogs, harmony abounds.

“Our birds of prey are plentiful and breeding well — our breeding pair of fish eagles have bred successfully since we arrived here and we also enjoy the variety of owls, bats and chameleons and bush babies.”

A conservation officer from Ezemvelo, who wished not be named, said that permits have to be issued for monkeys that are kept in cages and it is a policy to not issue any more of these permits.

He said that people who own licensed guns may shoot monkeys on their own properties as long as they do not live in a defined conservancy area.

• trish.beaver@witness.co.za

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