Vervets

Monkeys!

Colobus Elsamere Naiv

A female Black and White Colobus and baby. They are not a problem!

I always tell people who visit us in Africa to read a vey small and little known book called “A window onto Wilderness”, a jewel of a book that compiles reports from East African rangers and wardens giving you a feeling for the way things were over 50 years ago. Why do I mention this? Because what we see while on safari is just a peep into that “wilderness window” that then closes, but only for us! The events that we were lucky to witness still go on after we are gone. The same tusker that was feeding on Apple ring Acacia pods while we were in Mana Pools will still be there today while I write these lines, feeding on the pods that have fallen since our departure! Hence the fundamental importance of caring for these fragile ecosystems with all our might and the rather “over-used” cliché of “leave only our footprints behind”.

Wild animals only get close to humans seeking some benefit. Old lone buffalo bulls find hang around camps to gain protection from predators, carnivores take advantage of livestock and scavengers are after the rubbish pits.

Monkeys, both Baboons (Papio sp.) and vervets, (Chlorocebus sp.) have rather well developed brains and great agility, a good combination. Their lives are spent in the African bush (both trees and ground) where they feed on various types of food, being omnivorous like us. The proximity to humans offers them easier pickings so they raid crops and food. Coming back to the start of this post, we enter into the “monkey window” every time we go to stay at a wild place. They are ready and waiting for us!

It does not matter how many times you have been in the bush or how often you remind yourself to be aware of monkeys, they always catch you by surprise as they are –unbeknownst by us- stalking you for the first opportunity! This is what happened to us on our recent trip to Kruger, despite our extensive bush experience. While we were unpacking the car, a vervet took our powder milk and spilled it all around our lodge!

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2 vervets 2

Vervet monkeys grooming.

Although entertaining and endearing, monkeys are wild animals and therefore potentially dangerous. I recall my wife walking alone in Mzima Springs (Tsavo West National Park, Kenya) in the mid eighties when a few vervets started threatening her and, when she showed her surprise mixed with fear, they became more vicious until the game rangers chased them off. It was a bad experience that she still remembers.

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Vervet monkey eating what it should!

In addition to monkeys being daring, humans are stupid! I belong to the latter bracket… There is a place in Nairobi National Park, Kenya where you can leave the car and walk along the Athi river to watch the hippos and other game. It is a welcome chance to stretch your legs. The first time I visited the place it was mid morning and I was carrying a few bananas for our later lunch. Not for long… The moment I left the car I felt a pull and the bananas were gone! When I regained my wits, a male vervet was up a fever tree looking at me while holding all the bananas (I think it had a smile on its face!). A similar event happened to a good friend of ours (also a relative!) that lost her wallet in a similar manner and had to endure a “rain” of its contents and collect them carefully… “Please throw my VISA card now, Good, now my drivers license, good…’ and so on until all the contents and the wallet itself were scattered throughout the hotel garden!

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Young baboons keeping an eye on humans…

More dramatic was a similar incident -involving me of course- that happened at the Man Eaters petrol station, on the way to Mombasa from Nairobi. In that area yellow baboons (Papio cynocephalus) are found, thinner and leaner than their cousins the olive baboons (Papio anubis). They walk freely about the station. We stopped to re-fuel and I got out of the car to open the petrol cap without thinking that I had a packet of crisps in my hand. Again, before I became aware of it, a baboon (almost as large as me) confronted me and helped itself to my crisps. I resisted to no avail and I am convinced that in the scuffle that followed, it slapped me so that I would learn to surrender them quickly next time! Although funny now, it was rather scary at the time it happened!

On another occasion, the saying ‘like father like son’ comes to mind, unfortunately for my son. For the first time in my children’s 8 and 9 year old lives, their mother had gone on a trip to Rome and left them with me in Harare. This was apparently quite a traumatic experience for them, and although she was only gone for a fortnight, her absence was felt profoundly by all. Their older cousin, who stayed with us for a year was also with us, but thankfully faring better than the two monsters. After a week of countless tearful episodes and desperation on my part, I thought to distract them from their mother’s absence by taking them to the nearby Haka Park. Although not an animal ‘hotspot’ Haka park is a nice break from the nearby city and permits walking and climbing.

So I packed the three in the car along with a picnic lunch and headed to the park, where we whiled away the morning in tear-free style. When lunch time came around, we decided on a suitable picnic spot with a cement table and benches and settled down to eat. My daughter and I munched happily on our sandwiches while my nephew wandered about in his usual style and my son decided to sit at the next table over. As he appeared content as well, I left him to his own devices and continued to satisfy my hunger and keep an eye on the much more likely problem starter, my nephew. He was very much like a monkey himself with his affinity for trees and innate ability to climb almost anything (to my wife’s horror).

As lunch continued, my attention was drawn away from my son, probably by my much more talkative and bossy daughter, until suddenly we all heard an outraged howl. We turned in time to see my son having his sandwich snatched by a cute-looking vervet monkey, who then proceeded to sit in front of him and munch on my son’s former lunch. After an attempt to regain control of his lunch, which ended almost before it began with the monkey baring its teeth and chittering angrily (to our great amusement) my son proceeded to grab the remaining sandwiches and lock himself in the car. From the safety of the car he peered out of the window angrily (at us or at the monkey, I am not sure) while he proceeded to eat another sandwich in a monkey-free zone. Needless to say he endured quite a bit of teasing on our way home thanks to his assumption that the monkey was only after his company when it approached him!

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My son recovering from his duties as “monkey-chaser” at a camping site.

Baboons can be destructive as well, something I have also experienced and witnessed. My first hand experience happened when we were camping at Amboseli National Park in Kenya. I closed the sliding door of our VW kombi only to discover that a baboon was inside! Finding itself locked up it panicked and went “bananas” jumping all over the car and screaming its head off. Thankfully it was a young animal so it did not defecate and urinate as much as a fully grown animal would have done! It is sometimes amazing to see what can take place in a few seconds as I opened the door as fast as I could! It took long to clear the mess… Similar to the occasion when we camped at the fig tree camp in Lake Bogoria under a troop of baboons that made sleeping very difficult as they kept waking up throughout the night and screaming as if attacked by a leopard!!! They also pelted us with muck!!!

However, baboons can be even more destructive, something we learned while camping at Serondela in the Chobe National Park in Botswana. Our neighbours were clearly European tourists, judging by the neatness of their campsite. All items had a place and it was a stark contrast with our disorder! We came back in the evening and found the couple -we later learnt that they were Germans- looking at a heap of canvas and nylon where their tent had been before the baboons smelled the food that they had left inside. From then on, they slept in the car!

The last anecdote worth telling also took place in Kenya in the mid eighties at Meru National Park. Again, on arrival and while unloading our cars of the food needed for the three-day stay, our butter was taken, together with most of our tomatoes, although we managed to rescue a few that were scattered in the bush around the campsite. As these were damaged and already “touched” by the thieves, a lady friend and my wife decided to lay a deadly trap for the culprits, using the recovered tomatoes. The idea was to fill them with chili and black pepper and leave them out for the taking. This process demanded more work, skill and care than the preparation of our dinner, as the fruits needed to be hollowed and then stuffed with the deadly paste (oil was used to join the ingredients). Once the three or four tomatoes were ready, they were put in full view of the vervets while we watched, waiting for their response and hoping for them to learn a good lesson for the future! They took them almost instantly but what followed was not what was expected! The cautious thieves, after tasting them with the tips of their tongue, detected the trap and, immediately took all tomatoes to the nearby river, washed them carefully and shared them with their friends, to the anger of the female humans…

Although humorous, this account should serve as a lesson: animals are wild and must not be fed. It does not matter if they look cute and or entertaining, do not feed them. By so doing you are awarding them a death sentence as they will eventually need to be destroyed because they become too brave!

Gardening in the wild (I)

After I was offered a job in Ethiopia in 1988 and while still in Kenya, in my anxiety to know where we were getting to, I contacted a consultant that had just been there to get preliminary information. We knew each other quite well and he was frank with me. “The place is beautiful” he said, and he added “if you can get there with your car in one piece! We blew a tire, went off the road and had a near miss as we hit a large rock that stopped us from going down a steep slope”. I am sure he was enjoying this -probably the look on my face- when he added “but don’t let me put you off!” Trying to digest this and making fruitless efforts to hide my discomfort, I asked for details about the living quarters and the work. He complied with the latter and then said: “You are lucky as you will have a very large garden”. This somehow lifted my spirits and then he finished me off by saying: “the whole of Ethiopia will be your back garden!” I refrained from more questions…

 

Contemplating our "enlarged' garden with a visiting friend.

Contemplating our back garden with a visiting friend.

So we prepared for self-sufficiency through gardening! We bought seeds and tools and this was the beginning of our gardening experience in Africa. Our first visit to the local market confirmed that we had taken the right decision. There was a market every Saturday where farmers brought their produce, often walking very long distances over very hard terrain. A look at their feet clad in the ubiquitous sandals made from car tires vouched to that! Clearly their farming efforts were not directed towards the “forengis” (foreigners in Ethiopia) and fresh vegetables were rare. You could find tomatoes and, occasionally, onions. Both were sold by rows of farmers (mostly women) seated behind piles of 3 to 5 fruits. Attempts at buying all the tomatoes offered by any one of the sellers -through a kind Oromo interpreter- provoked a strong negative response as they were only happy to part with one or at most two units. That meant that to get a kg you needed to negotiate with about six farmers! A time consuming exercise!

 

A local market.

A local market.

There was also a number of produce that was utterly unknown to us and I do not even recall their names or use. I do recall seeing Oromo potatoes (Coleus edulis) and ensete (Ensete ventricosum). The former is widely consumed in Oromia and we did enjoy them steamed or boiled. The ensete is an important contributor to food security in the region and “kocho” was on offer. This greyish paste is prepared from the fermented pulverised trunk and inflorescence. This is a delicacy consumed at weddings and other important feasts. We did eat it occasionally but it did not leave a lasting impression.

Through her dedication, after a few months, my wife had transformed our backyard into a vegetable haven that was the topic of conversation in the laboratory. There were tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, lettuce, spinach, beans, peas and various spices. We were enjoying our fresh produce!

We discovered Seven year beans (scarlet runner beans) in Ethiopia.

We discovered Seven year beans (scarlet runner beans) in Ethiopia.

My wife tendering the garden.

My wife tendering the garden.

This lasted until the monkeys discovered it! To enlighten you, we were dealing with two main species: the vervet (Chlorocebus aethiops) and the mantled guereza (Colobus guereza), also known as black and white colobus. We loved watching them in the wild but not in our garden. The vervets were the main menace but the colobus, a hervivorous species, would also come down from their normal arboreal habitat to enjoy our garden. It is one thing to deal with small pests (insects, mollusks) and another one to control birds and/or mammals! To make matters worse, monkeys have quite developed brains, are very daring and they arrive in troops! After the first rather devastating visit, the superior primates -us- needed to deploy appropriate measures to prevent this from happening again! Clearly, we were not able to take pest protection measures applied in developed countries (enclosing the garden in chicken wire, flash guns, etc.). We had a problem and needed to act fast!

 

Colobus monkeys keeping an eye on the garden.

Colobus monkeys keeping an eye on the garden.

We did not invent anything new when we decided to consult the local farmers to seek their wisdom on the problem. At the end of the “expert consultations” we came to the conclusion that the best and probably only acceptable solution was to scare them. So, following their advice, we needed to find someone to watch our garden. It is common to see planted areas being watched by farmers from small raised towers from where they can see the crop area and take measures to scare pests away, such as stone throwing, shouting, running after them and other measures that vary according to the intruder. It is a different thing to scare monkeys flock than to chase away an elephant or a hippo!

Acting as per the recommendations, we proceeded to find the suitable candidate by consultating with other neighbours. We were fortunate to find a young relative of one of the veterinarins that was presented to us as the solution and he was duly employed to carry out the task. After this measure, although the monkeys at first continued to besiege our garden, they soon gave up and moved off.

A Vervet monkey feeding on stolen produce.

A Vervet monkey feeding on stolen produce.

Once this major problem was dealt with successfully, vegetables were produced in abundance as the climate there is very favourable for plant growth with an average temperature of 18°C and an annual rainfall of about 1800mm and insects were not a major problem.