Did you know?
Vervet monkeys have different alarm calls for raptors, snakes and mammal predators.
If you’re among thorn trees, look up and inspect them for silver-grey shapes, dark faces and long tails – you’re in perfect territory for vervet monkeys.
Vervet monkeys are easy to recognise. They are smallish animals with round heads, black hands and pink eyelids. And the males have bright blue scrota, which makes them unmistakable.
They are highly interactive and entertaining to watch because of their complex social lives, especially when there are babies about. Vervet babies cling to their mothers’ bellies for four months, after which they are weaned and encouraged to walk by themselves.
These monkeys make a number of characteristic sounds, ranging from a staccato chuttering sound to chirping and an abrupt bark that seems to mean ‘knock it off’. Zoologists say that they have at least 36 different sounds.
They also communicate with their bodies. For example, staring is an aggressive gesture, even more so if eyebrows are raised. A youngster’s pout indicates distress.
Unlike most other primates, vervet monkeys do well in arid areas – just as long as there’s a river or stream nearby, and plenty of acacias. They eat acacia gum, flowers, seedpods, leaves and, quite often, the eggs of birds that nest in them.
They’ll also eat lizards, beetles, and even bark and wood.
Vervets also do well in more tropical areas - so you might well spot them on a rural road in the Durban area of KwaZulu-Natal, for instance.
Like other monkeys, they’re major distributors of seeds, which is why forests are generally heavily dependent on primates. Of course, if there are farms or gardens, they’ll be only too delighted to raid everything from orchards to vegetables.
They’re usually found close to trees – keeping within a few hundred metres – but often forage on the ground. Sometimes you’ll find them standing upright, propped up with their tails out like meerkats, peering over the grass. They seldom take to water, but when they do (usually if chased), they are good swimmers.
It’s only in the past 20 years or so that vervet monkeys have been considered as anything other than vermin in South Africa. They were classified as such until 1987, and farmers would often shoot them on sight.
Now, although they are common enough to rank ‘least concern’ on the IUCN Red Data List, they have champions like Dave du Toit of the Vervet Monkey Foundation in Tzaneen, in the province of Limpopo.
They’re also attracting serious research interest. At Samara Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape Karoo, scientists and volunteers are studying how vervet monkeys cope with the temperature extremes of this semi-arid region.
One of the most interesting findings so far is that vervets can live without water for a month, something of a record for a monkey.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
How to get here
Apart from sanctuaries like the Vervet Monkey Foundation in Tzaneen, vervets are easiest to see in the eastern half of the country, and are particularly plentiful in places like Kruger National Park, KwaZulu-Natal’s northern parks and the arid parks further south, including the Addo Elephant National Park, Mountain Zebra National Park and Karoo National Park.
You’ll also find them in private and provincial parks in the Karoo, and to some extent in the Kalahari.
You’ll often see them from the road in areas outside towns – or sometimes close to houses, hotels and guest houses if they think they have a chance to raid the breakfast buffet.
Best time to visit
Vervets can be seen most of the year, but babies – usually born between September and November – are particularly appealing.
Tours to do
You could visit the Vervet Monkey Foundation in Tzaneen, in Limpopo province, but you’d need to make an appointment.
The foundation is more focused on rehabilitating monkeys than on tourism, but does appreciate the interest. They are always in need of volunteers to work with monkeys.
It’s easier to see them from a vehicle, since they generally run from humans on foot.
What will it cost
Here’s an animal that will cost you little or nothing to see, depending whether you’re watching them from the side of a road, or in a provincial park.
What to pack
Take along binoculars to study them more closely, and a camera with a good zoom lens if possible.