The monkeys you encounter around your home or on your farm will in all likelihood be Vervets, easily distinguished characteristics are their long arms, legs, and tails; small, round heads; and short faces with whiskers. Specific characteristics of the Vervet are its black face, black feet, and black tipped tail; mottled grey fur with white fur on its belly; pale blue skin, and bright blue scrota on the males.
They are adapted to practically all wooded habitats except for rain forest and their preferred habitat is Acacia tree woodland along lakes, rivers and streams. Vervets primarily dwell on the ground but take shelter from predators and sleep in trees. They are relatively slow runners and therefore cannot afford to travel far from the safety of trees.
They live in close-knit troops between 5 – 35 individuals, led and protected by the dominant male, within a fixed territory which the females never leave from birth till death and carry information about the territory from one generation to the next. Males leave the troop when they become sexually mature and are nomadic till they are able to join another troop, sometimes even taking over another troop by evicting that troop’s alpha male. Mature females weigh between 3.5 and 6 kilograms, and mature males between 5 and 7.5 kilograms.
Females give birth to a single baby after an approximate seven-month pregnancy. Most Vervet babies are born during the period September to December, just before the rainy season, but births can and do, occur throughout the year. Not all adult females in the troop have a baby in any given year. Studies have shown that due to the high infant mortality rate only one out of every four babies lives to adulthood.
Vervets communicate with each other by a variety of calls and by staring. Their calls consist of a variety of staccato barks cries and creaking.
What they eat
Mostly Vervets eat fruit, flowers, seeds, leaves, bark, tree gum, new shoots and grasses. They are opportunistic feeders and occasionally also eat insects, bird eggs, nestlings, small lizards, etc., as well as anything else edible that they find in and around peoples homes or in gardens and croplands. By planting indigenous trees, shrubs and flowers that provide Vervets with natural food and shelter around our homes, parks, schools and other open areas such as sports grounds and golf courses, the negative impact of these little animals on our lives can be minimized.
Is there a population explosion?
Definitely not! The fact is that Vervets are under severe threat as never before and their numbers are undoubtedly on the decline. Natural areas suitable for them are rapidly being eroded away by commercial, industrial, residential and agricultural development, forcing them to live in ever-decreasing areas, making them more visible and creating the illusion that their numbers are increasing.
Each troop of Vervets lives within its own territory. During daily foraging, troops often separate into a number of foraging groups so creating the false impression that more than one troop occupies a particular area. The troop will reunite into one group prior to roosting for the night. Where territorial boundaries overlap there is a small area common to both troops, and this is where inter-troop skirmishes occur.
Natural predators have been exterminated in many areas. However, these have been replaced by lethal, human-related dangers such as motor cars, dogs, electrocution on power lines, shooting and poisoning, snaring and trapping for food and muti (traditional medicine) and use in local and foreign research laboratories.
Human-Vervet conflict is primarily due to:
Intolerance and ignorance
Vervets entering peoples’ gardens, homes and warehouses in search of food, and inadvertently causing damage
Unfounded fear on the part of humans that they will be attacked by Vervets entering their gardens and homes, and the equally unfounded fear that such attacks could result in serious injury with the added risk of rabies or some other disease such as tetanus
Vervets causing damage and loss to commercial vegetable, fruit and sugar crops
Vervets are not malicious and only spend time where they feel safe and expect to find food.
To feed, or not to feed?
When Vervets are fed in your garden they start losing their fear of humans and are more likely to enter homes looking for food or, worse still, to snatch food not intended for them from people. It is a fact that the more direct contact there is between Vervets and people, the greater the fear, though unfounded, of a person getting bitten.
SO, UNLESS YOU ARE WELL ACQUAINTED WITH THEIR BEHAVIOUR, DO NOT FEED VERVETS IN YOUR GARDEN, AND ESPECIALLY DON’T FEED THEM BY HAND!
If you do insist on feeding Vervets then put out the food away from your house and away from boundaries with neighbours, at random times and when the Vervets are not around, so that the food is not directly associated with humans.
Random feeding of Vervets is strongly discouraged. However, there are definitely situations in which the establishment of a feeding-station” can solve problems of foraging Vervets. This should only be done with the advice and assistance of the Monkey Helpline or other qualified people.
Most urban gardens are definitely not the place to establish a feeding-station. The purpose of such a station is to attract Vervets away from where their presence is a problem.
On behalf of Vervet monkeys
It is only fair and respectful to Vervets that people who feel bothered or harassed by them make the effort to know a bit more about these intelligent and entertaining little animals and the reasons why they do some of the things that irritate and anger people.
For example, many people complain that Vervets take one bite out of a fruit then drop it. When they do this, Vervets are not being wasteful but are actually acting out evolved behaviour. By dropping fresh fruit in the forest or bush they provide ground-dwelling animals such as antelope and bushpigs with fresh food they would not normally have access to. These animals often follow troops of Vervets around, eating the fruit as it is dropped. Without Vervets, these animals would usually only find fruit on the ground that had dropped off the tree once it was overripe and unpalatable.
Vervets are one of nature’s most valuable agents of seed dispersal and play a huge role in indigenous plant growth and regeneration. Many seeds will only germinate after having been through an animal’s digestive system.
We really do have an obligation to try to understand the dilemma facing Vervets. Our homes have been built where they once had theirs. We have cultivated gardens and crops where once they foraged for natural foods. We have arbitrarily destroyed their “residential area” and all they can do now is to try and survive as best they can in an increasingly Vervet unfriendly world.
We do not dismiss the legitimate concerns of those people who have problems with Vervets. Whilst offering assistance in resolving such problems in a “Vervet-friendly” manner, Monkey Helpline also pleads the case for the Vervets, so that people understand their dilemma and have sympathy for their plight. If we can be more tolerant, more willing to try out humane, non-lethal ways of overcoming the problems associated with the presence of Vervets around our homes, gardens or croplands, then we will have progressed towards a more compassionate world.