It is less than two weeks to us leaving our home and garden and moving 1700 km (over 1000 miles) across the country to an entirely different environment and climate zone. Of the wild creatures that have visited our garden over the years, we will particularly miss the vervet monkeys.

Many suburban dwelling humans loathe visiting vervet monkeys so how is it that we found a way to live harmoniously with them? I think the first thing is to acknowledge that it is we who are invading their territory. At best their habitats are being eroded; at worst entirely destroyed. Additionally, they have to endure many threats as they seek to survive.

Vervet monkey adult with two juveniles resting in tree canopy in suburban garden, KwaZulu-Natal

When we first moved here, we chose to take certain actions to reduce the potential for conflict and avoid making the vervets defensive and afraid. The easiest way to do this is to respectfully ignore them. A friend of ours who is a primate naturalist has observed a degree of reciprocity between vervets and humans in their midst. If you respectfully ignore them the chances are that they will respectfully ignore you too.

So, when the monkeys are around, we proceed with what we are doing calmly and avoid staring at them. Staring is bad monkey/primate etiquette. It’s fine to glance at them but then look away before glancing at them again. I soon learned that even pointing a camera at them makes them so uneasy that they move away, so most of the photos I have of vervets I have taken discreetly through windows or doorways.

Even though I say we contrived to make it look like we are ignoring the vervets when they visit, we also took some more concrete measures to reduce the likelihood of problems before they might arise.

Here are some of the things we did:

We put semi-permanent monkey-proof mesh on any windows we left open when we went out. Initially, on one meshed window we had a small mesh cat flap that allowed the cats access to their enclosed garden but successfully deterred the vervets from coming in. After a few years we removed the flap and found that the monkeys did not come in.

We do not leave food such as fruit out so that it is visible through the windows, even when we are home. Once monkeys learn that food is easily available in the house it is very difficult for them to unlearn this. Prevention is better than cure!

Likewise monkeys – in fact all wild animals – should not be fed directly and especially not by hand, as that habituates them to close contact with humans and to them associating humans with food. Habituated monkeys expecting food are not going to keep their distance and that can lead to conflict situations that do not end well for anybody.

We fenced in our veggie patch – including the ‘roof’ – to prevent the monkeys from eating our vegetables.

We knew that if we had a bird feeder the monkeys would have no way of knowing that we are not putting the food out for them. What animal would not eat food make available to them in this way? So why do some people think that monkeys are ‘thieves’ when they are simply eating food that has been put outside and looks to be freely available?

Rather than feeding the birds with a bird feeder (our winters are mild), our garden is planted with a diversity of indigenous plants providing seasonal fruits, seeds and flowers and opportunities for birds to glean prey items off leaves and bark or more generally hunt insects and other creatures inhabiting our garden. The monkeys too forage naturally from the plants in our garden. This type of foraging takes a bit of time and effort and monkeys of different social rankings all get a chance to find something to eat, from fresh shoots of grass to wild fruits and seeds.

In the wild, vervet monkeys are important seed dispersers. In gardens, their habit of dropping half-eaten fruits may seem wasteful, but in the wild not only does this aid in seed dispersion but they are effectively distributing the bounty to ground-dwelling animals. As an example, bushbuck have been observed following vervet monkeys in the hopes of picking up discarded fruits. We too benefit – there is a large old avocado pear tree outside our property and we have come to rely on vervets dropping the high fruits that we can then collect from the ground.

Of course, wildlife-friendly gardening requires a different mindset from the view that garden flowers are purely aesthetic. When birds, vervets or any other creatures eat fruits, seeds, flowers or leaves in the garden, we are pleased as we are of the view that is what the plants are for!

We did our best to train our dogs not to bark at or chase the monkeys (though we suspect that our two previous dogs in their younger days did chase them when we were not home). As described in a previous post, when we are at home if the monkeys arrive, we call our dogs to sit with us or we bring the dogs inside. The monkeys observe us doing this and they trust us sufficiently to then feel confident enough to come down to forage or play on the ground or drink water at the bird baths.

All this adds up to an atmosphere of peacefulness. When the monkeys visit or pass through, they are not chased or shouted at. Consequently, they need not feel afraid or defensive. We humans may misinterpret the behaviour of a fearful animal as being aggressive when more accurately it is being defensive.

It is best to avoid creating an atmosphere of fear and rather foster calmness and serenity where everyone, humans and monkeys, can behave with a degree of dignity. In the specific circumstances of our garden, it was up to us to choose whether to foster calmness or conflict. How much nicer for everyone to avoid conflict and not be on high alert for any perceived ‘transgressions’.

Imagine being a vervet and have new people and perhaps new dogs moving into your neighbourhood. To survive you continually have to be observant and vigilant. Imagine the relief if you find you don’t have to muster the energy to be constantly avoiding being threatened, shouted at, chased or worse.

In the wild, a troop of vervet monkeys has a stable group of females at its core. Female monkeys do not leave their birth group, which is tied to the troop’s inherited territory over many generations. Within the group are social rankings with some monkeys and their offspring being of higher rank than others.

Babies are brought up in the group primarily by their mothers sometimes with the aid of allo-mothers, usually older juvenile daughters who assist and learn mothering skills on the way. So, if you see a juvenile with a baby, it is not “babies having babies” (as my mother used to say erroneously and disapprovingly).

Female vervets become sexually mature at about four years of age, and so they are about five years old when they give birth to their first baby. They typically have a maximum of one baby a year. The mortality rate of baby vervets is very high. Threats to baby monkeys (and to adults too) come from natural predators such as crowned eagles and pythons, and more commonly from human-related dangers such as vehicles, fences, domestic dogs, power lines and from humans deliberately harming or killing them. Habitat destruction is also an ongoing threat to the survival of vervet monkeys, as it is to many other species.

Male monkeys mature at the age of five years and like many other animals, including for example lions, they then have to disperse from their birth group. After leaving they need to find another troop to integrate with. They may do this on their own or in the company of an age mate. As you can imagine, this is a very scary time for them. They have to face threats on their own without the protection of the group and in more urban environments it can be difficult to find a new troop to link up with.

There is a popular notion that a male monkey on its own is ‘rogue’, but most likely it is a rather scared/defensive and probably hungry monkey dispersing and trying to find a new troop to join.

Vervet troops include multiple female and male members. They do not have a harem system but have multiple male members of varying levels of rank or seniority. For males, rank may be improved through competition. Dominance behaviour is often ritualised although physical conflict can occur, more often during the breeding season.

Normal troop functioning can be disrupted if a troop is living under constant threats of violence and habitat destruction in urbanising environments.

If for whatever reason there is a need to deter monkeys directly, spraying water from a garden spray bottle or water pistol or by using a garden hose is a humane way of deterring monkeys, but we have not needed to do this. Should the unfortunate situation arise where you find a monkey in the house, make sure it can escape without being cornered. The monkey’s first concern will be to get away without any contact. After it has gone, figure out how best to prevent a future occurrence of a monkey or monkeys getting into the house. Pre-emptive prevention is always the best option.

For us, we have never had any conflict situations arising. It has been a privilege and a joy to discreetly observe vervets in our garden enjoying their visits here with dignity and calmness, allowing their babies a safe haven to rest and to play and practice their climbing skills.

I find it sad that many people see their garden as personal turf to be manicured, poisoned and defended. As I have said before, it is much more relaxing and rewarding to have a garden that is more natural and a haven to share with visiting birds and other creatures, including vervet monkeys. We would be very much the poorer without their presence.

This is the last time I am posting before our move away from the wonderful garden that inspired Next month, after we have settled in a bit, I hope to post from our new place in the Western Cape. I look forward to discovering new ways to let nature back in as we adapt to new habits and habitats and we hopefully learn more about ways of living more lightly on our precious planet.

Posted by Carol