The Human-Monkey Relationship on Simbithi

This article is based on an article by Johan Gerber titled MONKEYS vs HUMANS: THE DILEMMA IN MTUNZINI, which he penned for the benefit of Mtunzini residents.  Johan, having spent all his working years in the game reserves of Zululand with his family sharing their living space with monkeys, baboons and other animals has far greater credibility than I do in writing on this issue. As his article voiced my own beliefs on avoiding issues with the vervet monkeys that also call Simbithi “home”, I have with Johan’s kind permission basically tweaked his article for Simbithi.  As in Mtunzini, Simbithi’s residents have a love/hate relationship with the monkeys, some residents hate them, some love them and Simbithi residents are divided on what should be done about “Simbithi’s monkey problem”.

I echo Johan’s belief that there is not a “monkey problem” and that it is a human problem as so many of us do not understand the various dynamics required to live without causing human-monkey conflict, including the issue of monkeys becoming problematic “beggars” and opportunistic “thieves” at places like the Heron and Kingfisher Community Centres.

 

The Monkeys of Simbithi

Our monkey troops prime habitat on Simbithi are our forest areas where most of their natural feeding takes place and where they roost at night. Historically, monkeys would have inhabited these coastal and swamp forests.  Monkeys seldom venture into open areas e.g., grasslands as they need the protection of the forest canopy to prevent predation, including that by Crowned eagles. 

Monkeys like humans are omnivores – eating both animal and plant foods. They are predominantly plant eaters and eat a variety of buds, flowers, wild fruits, seeds, shoots, leaves, roots, tubers and seed pods.  In addition, they also eat insects such as grubs, termites, grasshoppers, reptiles such as geckos as wells as bird’s eggs and baby fledgelings.

Studies have found that monkey population densities vary according to the food available. Where there is an abundance of food females will breed annually and when food is scarce they will often miss a breeding season. Offspring of overly well-fed monkey mothers are also much more likely to have an unnaturally high survival rate. So, the more abundant the unnatural food, the more the monkey numbers will increase.

During 2014 due to concerns voiced by Simbithi residents a “Monkey Working group” was established including the SEEHOA Environmental staff and residents. The aims of the group were to establish the monkey population i.e., the number of troops, troop sizes and total population by way of regular counts. To monitor any increase in troop and total population over one year, 2 years and beyond.   To identify roosting sites and identify which troops were resident on Simbithi and did not venture beyond our boundaries and which troops frequented Simbithi and adjacent areas.  Concurrently, the group aimed at facilitating research on monkeys by doctoral and other students. 

By December 2014 the “Monkey Working Group” had established that there were eight troops which were named after favourite roosting sites.  There were only three troops whose home ranges were solely on Simbithi. These were the Heron troop consisting of approximately 50 monkeys, the Savanna troop which consisted of approximately 40 monkeys and the Farmyard troop consisting of approximately 25 monkeys.  This troop’s favourite roosting spot was in trees near the original site of the Ladlau’s farmyard and their home range includes the coastal forest near the South and North gates on both the Eco and the Golf course side of Simbithi.   Troops whose home ranges extended beyond Simbithi’s boundaries were the Goodies Troop (+- 40), the Ballito gate Troop (18-20), Ironwood Troop (16 monkeys), Salt Rock troop and finally a troop that regularly visited Sabuti and was called the Long Island Troop.  The total population was estimated at about 200 monkeys.

Further observation gave us a good idea of each troop’s home range and where home ranges overlapped.  Further comprehensive counts in 2016 and 2017 counts indicated the troops had primarily remained constant in numbers. By this time there were two doctoral students, Lindsay Paterson and Harriet Thatcher who were conducting studies on Simbithi.   They confirmed troop ranges and numbers. To assist in monitoring the troops for their study purposes, one sub adult male monkey and one adult female monkey from each troop were collared with small radio-tracking devices. The constant troop numbers (2014 to beginning 2018) dispel the illusion that there had been a population explosion and confirm scientific studies that monkeys are self regulating if they only rely on natural food. 

Vervet monkeys, like humans, are a social species. Females are known to socialise and forage more than the males. Male vervets meanwhile rest more and drink more than the females. Sound familiar?  The troop is a stable but complex group. Troops mainly consist of adult females and their offspring. Newborn vervets have black hair and a pinkish face and only acquire full adult colouration after four months. The first week of life is spent clinging to the mother’s stomach but by the third week they will already start to play with other infant monkeys. The other monkeys in the troop are always interested in infant monkeys and subadult females do everything possible to be able to hold or groom a new infant. Allomothering, which is care of the infant monkey by other monkeys, benefits both the mother who has a reduction in time and energy in infant caring and the juvenile female that cares for the infant. This is usually a sibling and she gains maternal experience and is more likely to rear her first live-born infant successfully.

There is a strict social hierarchy within each troop that controls feeding, mating, friendships, grooming and even survival. Grooming is a very important part of every vervet’s day and they spend hours removing parasites, dirt and other materials from each other’s fur. Dominant members receive the most grooming. Male monkeys transfer from one troop to another beginning at puberty. Transferring to another troop is dangerous, they are often exposed to dangers in crossing open areas alone and, as troops do not welcome strangers, the immigrant newcomer may be attacked and is sometimes killed.  We have noted how few adult male members there are in our troops and puzzled by the high attrition rate of young males. One sees the occasional lone adult male monkey, but it does not explain how few male infants appear to make it to adulthood. 

What we need to understand:

Monkeys do not need us to feed them. They have survived for centuries in the wild without feeding from humans. In times of plenty they flourished and troop sizes grew, in lean times the weakest members of the troop would die and certainly the rate of breeding would reduce. They did not “over-populate” an area, had a healthy distrust of possible predators including man.  However, they are highly intelligent and learn quite quickly that where there are humans eating, there is ‘easy food.’  This is why they become a nuisance in Community Centres where parties are held or where humans eat food in the open. Johan explains that in in four decades of living in the same habitat as monkeys they did not have conflict – because they “never fed the monkeys, they never had food on display inside or immediately outside their home, and they never encouraged the monkeys to become used to them. They were treated as wild animals – admired, respected and enjoyed, but from a distance.” Notices in the Kruger National Park state: Feeding Wildlife is signing their death warrant and sadly this is so often true. 

People often complain that the vervets waste a lot of food, taking one bite and dropping the rest but what an adult monkey drops is often eagerly picked up by a juvenile, or foraged not only our duikers but also by our bushbuck and banded mongooses. Monkeys play a vital ecological role in the dispersal of seeds sometimes by dropping seeds or fruit and sometimes by defecating seeds that will only germinate if first passed through the intestinal tract of primates.

The way forward:  

As Johan explains there is no quick-fix but his following seven suggestions will reduce human monkey conflict on Simbithi.

  1. Stop Active feeding

Those residents in Simbithi who actively feed the monkeys and encourage close interaction with a troop or smaller family group within Simbithi should desist from doing so immediately. These residents may have good intentions, but their actions are neither assisting the monkeys nor fellow residents and could have long term, devasting consequences for the monkeys.  Our monkeys are not starving and do not need to be fed. Vervet monkeys have fewer intestinal parasites on a natural monkey diet than when fed “human food” and the result of feeding them will result in an increased number of monkeys. A greater number of monkeys above the natural balance results in more fledgling birds being killed and more fighting between troops as well as more human monkey conflict.

  1. Stop Passive Feeding

Monkeys sit in trees and other vantage points from where they locate fruit, bread and other food on display in your home. With the first opportunity they raid your house. Place fruit in a container. Put foodstuff away in cupboards after eating. If you have a dog, make sure to pick up your dog’s bowl should they leave pellets after finishing their meal. If monkeys consistently do not see or find food at your home, they will not bother to come too close or venture inside.

  1. Secure Refuse and Avoid Littering

On Simbithi all black household refuse bags as well as the clear recycling bags are to be put on the verge in Wheelie bins. No bags may be placed on the verge. However, the monkeys quickly learn to open the wheelie bins, so the lids need to be secured with a commercially available monkey-proof clip or with another suitable monkey-proof means.  Some residents have found rubber snakes to be a deterrent but many of the troops on Simbithi are familiar with these and pay them no attention at all.

When using one of our many braai or picnic spots and at Community Centres please make sure all refuse is immediately placed in the brown monkey proof bins provided. Likewise, residents and visitors must avoid littering on the Golf course and trails and around our dams.

  1. Secure Birdfeeders

Monkeys are agile and intelligent, so this is difficult but certainly not impossible. On Simbithi only seed may be fed, no fruit or other foodstuffs.  Either sprinkle the seed in a patch of grass or low ground cover or use fishing line to suspend the feeder well away from anything else as Johan does. One Simbithi resident has made a wide cage of narrow mesh and puts her bird seed in a secured tray in the centre of this.  The “cage” is too wide for the monkeys to get the seed with their long arms and they are unable to tip it over. The small seed eating birds can still access the seed and are perfectly safe doing so. 

  1. Secure Growing Vegetables.

On Simbithi we are allowed to grow vegetables in pots or containers. Wire mesh or other suitable material should be placed over growing vegetables to prevent monkeys from raiding vegetable gardens.

  1. Use of Laser-Pointers

The use of laser pointers has been well documented to be an effective deterrent against monkeys. When they see the green dot on their bodies they retreat at speed.   At the Heron Centre we installed a sonic monkey deterrent device on a trial-basis, but this did not prove effective at all.

  1. Monkey Guards over windows.

Commercially available clear burglar guards are available that can be used on windows to not only keep human burglars out but also monkeys.  These are highly recommended to monkey proof windows which can then be left open. But please continue to not have food visible whenever possible.

  1. Special considerations at Community Centres - Heron and Kingfisher

Residents must NEVER feed monkeys at community centres and must take precautions to prevent monkeys getting food during children’s parties and when families are enjoying meals at the Heron centre. Unfortunately, the monkeys have identified these spots as “good take-aways” and Simbithi may need to institute further measures such as a monkey chaser at busy times at these centres.

  1. Report Instances of Injured Monkeys

Injured monkeys have been treated on Simbithi. Injuries are mainly due to fighting within a troop or between troops. We have also had monkeys injured by vehicles, attacked by dogs  and even affected by an overdose of prescription tranquillisers which were “stolen” by the monkey from a resident’s bedside table.  Do report any instances of injuries so that we can ensure the monkeys receive veterinary care when required.

WHAT WE MUST NOT DO

  1. Do Not Shoot or Harm Monkeys

Please remember that it is unlawful to:       

  • discharge a firearm within an urban area
  • place poison to kill any animal
  • use any trap without permission
  • to treat any animal in a cruel way

 

Any such instances on Simbithi will be reported to the SPCA and SAPS.

It is a sad indictment on people living in Ballito that it is usual for vets to find pellets in monkeys when x-raying them for other injuries. Pellets can result in suffering and a slow, painful death for monkey or permanent disability.

Poisoning is not only extremely cruel and results in immense suffering and the most painful death imaginable but will also kill any other animal taking the bait as well as predators feeding on the dead carcasses causing an ecological disaster.

Our Simbithi Rules state inter alia that:

  • it is forbidden to harm any wildlife
  • no wildlife may be fed apart from seed for birds
  • no littering in open spaces
  • owners of dogs that cause harm to wildlife may be asked to remove the pet from the estate and /or be liable for a fine
  • dogs must be on leash and under control of a responsible person when outside an owner’s property
  • speed limit of 40 km per hour on all our roads

And resident may be liable to fines if found to be in violation of any of the above rules.

  1. Do Not Create Feeding Stations

A few residents have suggested we create feeding stations near coastal forest patches away from residences and community centres. Well intended, but in the long run the creation of feeding problems exacerbates the problem by leading to more monkeys.  Feeding stations also lead to conflict between troops.  Studies in urban areas have proved that they are not a viable solution.

CONCLUSION

If we, as the residents of Simbithi, all agree and discipline ourselves to:

  • stop any passive or active feeding of the monkeys
  • do not deliberately encourage interaction with them
  • are disciplined in making sure food is not left in view of monkeys
  • always ensure garbage in not accessible to monkeys
  • safeguard our homes and community buildings
  • ensure our visitors and tenants obey our rules
  • plant a rich and diverse range of naturally indigenous plants that provide natural food
  • admire, respect and enjoy monkeys as wild animals and
  • most importantly don’t interfere with them

the monkeys will slowly learn that we humans on Simbithi are not a source of “ready food” and there will be diminishing human monkey conflict situations.  Monkeys and humans can live in harmony if we apply these common sense principles and actions which are in the best interests of the monkeys. But it will take a concerted effort by every single resident and visitor. Where monkeys are in the habit of invading or visiting homes and community centres they will need to actively but humanely discouraged from doing so. Hate them or love them we all need to confirm to do what is ultimately best for both monkeys and humans and to reduce or eliminate monkey human conflict on Simbithi.                                             

HEADER IMAGE: Chris Allan Photography

GALLERY IMAGES: Helen Millar