It all started in 1989, when an abandoned baby monkey was brought to Dave du Toit as he was working on a farm. His attempts to save it were treated with suspicion and hostility; monkeys were regarded as vermin and he was told that the best thing was to put it down.
Dave had other ideas. He began to investigate what was known about these indigenous primates and discovered that they were seen in a very negative light, and that very little was known about the rehabilitation of injured and orphaned monkeys. The need for a sanctuary became obvious, and the Vervet Monkey Foundation was registered as a charity in 1993.
The function of the foundation is not only to rehabilitate orphaned and injured animals, but also to research into their life style and into the claims of damage caused by the species. At the moment, there are 560 monkeys being cared for at the foundation at their base near Letsitele. Animals older than a year are treated and returned into the wild, but younger babies need fostering as they are dependent on their mothers. Dave says that on average 30 to 40 babies are rescued every year. All this is labour intensive and costs money, and some of the funds are raised by taking international volunteers.
Dave cannot understand the animosity which is commonly felt against the vervet monkeys. Most people know very little about them; they are primates just like us and live in similar social structures. A healthy troop consists of about four or five families, making a total of about 50 animals. He says that the troops in the Hoedspruit area are still very healthy, but in many parts of the country cars and electric pylons are taking their toll, easily replacing the natural predators which may now be scarcer.
The amount of damage monkeys can do to a crop is minimal. Commercial fruit farms harvest while the fruit is still under-ripe, and monkeys will only eat ripe fruit. Fruit falls and is lost for various reasons, and monkeys play only a very minorrole. They are an integral part of nature: their jumping and playing invigorates the trees by getting rid of dead branches. They are accused of being wasteful eaters, but in nature what they leave is eaten by small bucks, hedgehogs and porcupines, species who can’t access the fruit themselves.
Dave sympathises more with people who lose fruit from trees in their small gardens, but his message is: we have to choose. We move to these areas because we enjoy being with animals – we have to take the rough with the smooth! As a practical recommendation, he suggests planting the type of indigenous trees that monkeys prefer over fruit trees.
The “problem with monkeys” in rest camps and picnic sites in the Kruger National Park is well known, but Dave points out that the problem is really with people. It is the humans who have to be trained and taught, not the monkeys. The monkeys are a big attraction, bringing visitors and income, and lodges and reserves, including KNP, should have a system of fining anybody caught feeding animals.
We live with monkeys as our neighbours in Hoedspruit without really knowing much about them. At the end of my visit to the foundation, Dave brought out a baby monkey, rescued a week ago as its mother was killed by a car, and recovering slowly from concussion. Seeing its perfect little hands, gripping my thumb, certainly made me look at the monkey troop in our garden in a different light.