Summer in Africa

Aileen Sweeney, a fourth year Zoology student from the School of BEES writes from South Africa on how she’s spending her summer and working on her final year research project:

I was going to start this by mentioning the fact that most people have never even heard of vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) given that they are listed as “Least Concern” by the IUCN Redlist and are labelled as “pests” throughout their range. However, with the story in recent weeks of the “witch” monkey that was tortured in a township outside of Johannesburg (see here) making the news as far away as Germany and Scotland, the term “vervet” has suddenly reached a much wider audience.

I have just completed my third year of Zoology at the School of BEES and I am in South Africa for my third summer in a row (yes, LOTS of saving and a couple of loans to afford it!). I am here to once again volunteer with these intriguing primates. However this time around I am also conducting both my Work Placement module as well as research for my Final Year Project.

I am half way through 2 months at “Bambelela Wildlife Care Farm” in Limpopo, having been here before in 2009. The grounds are nestled in a small valley with a river running through the property. In the area there is a resident wild troop of vervets, several wild troops of Chacma baboons (Papio ursinus) and the centre also lies within the territory of a leopard (Panthera pardus)– in fact there was a sighting of her with 2 cubs a few weeks ago!

Vervet monkeys grooming

Bambelela specialises in the rehabilitation and eventual release of vervets, but they will take nearly any wildlife casualty; wildebeest, kudu, owls, meerkats, baboons, there was even a baby rhino once! Currently there are nearly 200 monkeys in the centre, with around 30 of those being orphaned infants from this year’s breeding season. Most of them live in the “Kindergarten” where there are hourly sit-ins by volunteers in order to give the infants milk and attention.

An injured and treated infant vervet monkey

The days here can be long, busy and dirty but the feeling of making a difference is amazing. I get up each morning at 7am to clean and feed Karneels (a ten-month old male) and then begin collecting data for my project before work begins at 8am. I have a designated enclosure (called “Beanie’s Camp”) which currently contains 12 monkeys. It is my responsibility to clean, feed and maintain the enclosure. Between 12-1pm I have my sit-in in the Kindergarten during which I get to play and bond with the infants.

After lunch from 2-3pm I sit with Zack and Coco; these are 2 ex-pet, exotic capuchin monkeys from South America who can unfortunately only be offered sanctuary here. Their behaviour is vastly different to the vervets and I love spending time with them. The days here are structured but also sometimes very unpredictable; as I write this a team is on the way to collect up to 5 monkeys who all need special treatment, including a infant with head injuries after being hit by a car.

Collecting data in South Africa

It’s hard and tiring working 7 days a week for sometimes over 12 hours a day, but the work is very rewarding and the bond you make with the monkeys you work with is priceless. They get scared, they get angry, they get jealous, they show affection- so many human-like traits. Each orphan has its own sad story, but some are worse than others. Some will come in fresh from being plucked from their mother’s dead body (these are easier to work with rehabilitation-wise as they are still “wild”), however some come in that have been kept as pets from very young ages and some don’t even realise that they are monkeys. It can be upsetting to see them so scared of other individuals their age and screaming to stay with humans, but with time and patience every infant here begins to act like a vervet again.

Time here passes quickly and the date is easily forgotten (except when exam results are being released!) I hope that this area of work is something that I will stick with in the long-run. My fourth year project is based on the behavioural differences between the orphaned infants that have been brought to the centre and non-orphaned infants that have been born in the centre; perhaps it will be a good basis to assess any changes that should be made to keep the orphans acting as similar to their non-orphaned counterparts as possible.

Aileen with Zack the capuchin

Either way, primate rehabilitation has definitely become a passion for me; unfortunately it is an area that sees a lot of casualties but not a lot of recognition or support. People are much more willing to become involved in the well-known plights of animals such as the Giant Panda or the Bengal Tiger. It is difficult to make people understand that conservation should start long before the word “endangered” comes into the equation.

Unfortunately these primates have a “pest” reputation associated with them given their affinity to human foods- raiding both crops and rubbish bins alike. The unfortunate fact is that you cannot truly understand these animals until you have come in close contact with them (either through working or volunteering with them or even by having one as a pet; luckily many people have now become involved in the rehabilitation process through having a pet vervet that they have had to give up, either through it being confiscated or becoming problematic). Jane Goodall put it perfectly when she said in reference to the chimpanzees she has dedicated her life to- “only if we understand can we care. Only if we care will we help. Only if we help shall they be saved”.


Thanks to Aileen Sweeney for the use of her excellent photographs from Bambelela.

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6 Responses to Summer in Africa

  1. Orla Myers says:

    This is such an interesting article! You’re so so lucky to be working in the field already!
    Best of luck with your thesis.

  2. Gavin Burnell says:

    What an amazing experience. I look forward to reading your diary (the work placement one of course !). On average, how many vervets would be rehabitiated each year?

  3. Christine Roche says:

    Wow Aileen!!! You are rocking it!!!!!!! (excuse the pun!) VERY impressive!!

  4. Sheena Sweeney says:

    Wow….pretty amazing….delighted to see that you really are working…ha ha. Also impressed with your very well taken photos! Must have a great teacher and camera 🙂 By the way you’re silence is well forgiven;)

  5. Aine Sands says:

    I worked in Bambelela last year for all of June. Had such an amazing time!! Looking at the photos bring backs so many memories!! Its great to see such dedication to the Vervet monkeys!!

  6. Laura Bracken says:

    Well Done Ails!

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