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IIf you’re visiting a South African nature reserve and you find yourself among thorn trees, look up and see if you can spot any 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 primates with round heads, long black-tipped tails, 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 4 months, after which they are weaned and encouraged to walk – and climb, swing and run through branches – by themselves.
These monkeys make several characteristic sounds, including staccato chattering, chirping and an abrupt bark that seems to mean, ‘Stop that!’ Zoologists have identified at least 36 different sounds, including 3 separate alarm calls that identify predator threats as snakes, mammals or raptors.
They also communicate with their bodies. For example, staring is an aggressive gesture, even more so if eyebrows are raised, while a youngster’s pout indicates distress.
Unlike most other primates, vervet monkeys are not put off by arid climates – 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 the trees.
They’ll also eat lizards, beetles and even bark and wood.
Vervets do very well, however, in more tropical areas – you are almost certain spot them along the rural byways 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, they’re quite happy to raid farms, orchards and vegetable gardens too.
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 30 years or so that vervet monkeys have been considered 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 are protected and 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 Eastern Cape province, scientists and volunteers are studying how vervet monkeys cope with the temperature extremes of the arid Karoo.
One of their most interesting findings so far is that vervets can live without water for a month – something of a record for a monkey.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Vervet Monkey Foundation (Dave du Toit)
Tel: +27 (0)83 454 5381
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, throughout KwaZulu-Natal’s parks, nature reserves and rural areas, and even the drier parks further south in Eastern Cape, including the Addo Elephant National Park, Mountain Zebra National Park and Karoo National Park.
They can be found in private and provincial parks in the Karoo too, 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.
It’s easier to see them from a vehicle, since they generally run from humans on foot.
What to pack
Binoculars and a camera with a good zoom lens. Sunscreen and a hat are recommended year-round when outdoors.
- Vervet Monkey Foundation
- Samara Private Game Reserve
- South African National Parks (SANParks)
- Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife
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