UPDATE: The controversial ‘M’ word

Lindsay Patterson and Dr Derrick Lilienfeld put a tracking collar on a monkey to help monitor the troop's movements for her research.

Forget South African politics – the real controversy is urban Vervet monkeys.

Love them or hate them, they are here to stay.

Some say there are too many monkeys due to the lack of predators, while others claim that they are under threat and in need of protection.

While there is little research available, most experts agree that the biggest problem is humans feeding them.

Environmental impact
Ecoman (consultant ecosystems manager) from Mount Moreland Michael Hickman said Vervet monkeys are causing an environmental disaster and the authorities are ignoring it.

“Everyone is scared of talking about monkeys but this is a topic that has to be addressed. Within the Ethekwini Metro their numbers have increased to alarming proportions over the last ten years, which is causing a tremendous environmental problem that the authorities do not want to address because of the highly emotive group of people who, I believe, are to a large degree responsible for the bad situation the monkeys now find themselves in.

“You cannot feed monkeys and get them used to humans and expect them not to pester other humans for food too. Monkey see, monkey do.”

Michael Hickman’s house in Mount Moreland is regularly raided by monkeys, leaving his kitchen in a mess.

Because of lack of predators within the Metro area, the Vervet is the alpha predator at the top of the food chain and its numbers are not kept in check. This creates a huge imbalance in the ecosystem.

“In Mount Moreland it is virtually impossible for any bird to successfully breed, other than those few lucky ones which nest where monkeys cannot get to them to destroy their nest and eat their eggs and young. Lesser Striped Swallows, Village Weavers and the few hole-nesting birds are able to find a hole secure from monkey predation. Chameleons and most lizards have virtually no chance of survival.”

University of KZN Phd student Lindsay Patterson recently studied bird nest predation throughout KZN and found that Vervet monkeys, and other urban predators to a lesser extent, may have a negative impact on nesting birds.

“As urbanization increases, the identification of nest predators becomes important for avian conservation and management of urban wildlife communities. From June 2013 through February 2014 we installed 75 artificial nests in 25 suburban gardens. A total of 25% of the artificial nests were raided, with Vervet monkeys being the main predators,” said Patterson, who is passionate about primates and has been studying them since 2013.

“Vervet monkeys are generalist feeders that have adapted to urban environments which means raiding often becomes a common foraging strategy. Therefore, Vervet monkey density, in conjunction with the variation in seasonal food availability, and decreasing diversity in urban predators, may lead to urban bird eggs being sought out as a high protein food source.”

Are there too many Vervet monkeys?
Patterson said general beliefs that the monkey population has exploded and that they are hungry cannot yet be answered, as few studies on urban Vervet monkeys exist to compare previous years to the current situation.

“It is a pretty unique situation to live with monkeys. When I moved to KZN in 2010, I was amazed that there was so little published research work on urban Vervet monkeys. The Vervet monkey situation is like a court case with the pro-monkey team trying to prove that they are not guilty against the anti-monkey team. However we need to build up a substantial case of evidence before we can make decisions.

“It seems like people are seeing monkeys more, which does not necessarily mean there are more.

“Research and patience will show the facts, but I can say that I do not fear for Vervet monkey’s resilience in urban environments as they are intelligent opportunists.”

Conservationists believe that feeding monkeys does more harm than good.

KZN Ezemvelo Wildlife’s Lionel van Schoor said monkeys will continue to be maimed and killed by people as long as they are fed by us.

“Half the population in Ballito, especially holidaymakers, feed monkeys which increases the problem. From a conservation point of view, we do not agree with feeding stations either. While it does help get them out of people’s homes, it stops them from foraging and finding their own food,” said Van Schoor.

In their book Are the Monkeys Really Guilty?, authors Charles and Julia Botha say many primatologists believe that well-fed monkeys have more babies.

“The more abundant the unnatural food, the more monkey numbers will increase. In addition, they can afford to become bolder in urban areas than they would be in their natural state, because their numbers are no longer controlled by the usual predators such as Crowned Eagles.

“But when they become corrupt because of human interference, it is always the monkeys and not the people who get the blame!”

Monkey Helpline founder Steve Smit believes monkey populations are far from growing.

“In virtually every area of KZN that we operate in we can see for ourselves that the average number of individuals in each troop is in decline. Healthy troop sizes vary between 30 to 50, but nowadays most troops are around 20 to 35 individuals.”

Smit said the only obstacle to bringing about a harmonious relationship between humans and Vervet monkeys on the Dolphin Coast, and anywhere else is ignorance.

“People need to understand who these monkeys are, why they live where they do, what their behaviour means and how humans should or shouldn’t behave in the presence of monkeys and how to humanely keep them out of those areas of your property where they are not welcome.”

“Calls for monkeys to be culled are both irrespon – sible, unethical and disrespectful of the monkeys and also those people who work tirelessly to protect the monkeys and assist people who are troubled by the presence of monkeys in and around their homes.”

However, some farmers said monkeys are destroying their crops. Maphumulo farmer Sbusiso Dlamini said monkeys are a big problem in their banana and sugar cane farms.

“We chase them away whenever we see them, but we wish there was a method we could use to keep them away from our plantations without killing them,” he said.

>>  Expect to find the latest trends in Health, Wellness and Beauty in Ballito.

>> Meet the top players in the North Coast property industry. See our Property People feature.

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  AUTHOR
Elana Geist
Journalist

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