After three weeks in the Thuma Forest protecting elephants (see my blog post ‘Searching for elephants, hunting for poachers) I made my way to the capital city of Malawi, Lilongwe, to start my placement with the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre. Renowned for their amazing volunteering program and wildlife rescue and rehabilitation program, this was the volunteering position I worked the rest of my trip around.
First and foremost, Lilongwe Wildlife Centre is a sanctuary and not a zoo. Each resident animal is either too injured/sick/disabled to be returned to the wild, or else animals are undergoing treatment and rehabilitation before being returned to their natural habitats. The enclosures are spacious and often private, natural behaviours are encouraged through enrichment, no animals are put on display or made to entertain guests, and a no-breeding program is in place to reduce overcrowding. On top of this, the Wildlife Emergency Response Unit makes callouts to some of the most remote or dangerous parts of the country to rescue and aid wild animals in a variety of situations, most recently to remove a poachers snare cutting into the leg of a baby elephant and rescuing a male serval from a sewage pipe. After the welfare and future of the animals, the Wildlife Centre’s biggest aim is to educate visitors about poaching, wildlife trafficking, conservation, wildlife, and responsible and ethical tourism.
Becoming a monkey mother
I was even more fortunate enough to travel to Malawi towards the end of the orphan season, meaning I was given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be the surrogate mother for three orphaned vervet monkeys. Victims of the illegal pet trade, their parents were likely killed for meat or fur and the babies sold on the side of the road as pets. The illegal wildlife trade is a growing problem in Africa, particularly in countries like Malawi, but the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust is increasing awareness through education and advocacy and making an example of people found participating and funding the industry.
So without further ado, let me introduce you to my babies:
Trouble – the eldest, his name speaks for itself. He was found being sold on the side of the road, but was older than the other two when he was bought in to the Centre and as a result has the most confidence of the three. Trouble was always the first to jump on me when I entered the enclosure, and was the ringleader of the gang.
Aboo – was also found on the side of the road at 4 weeks old, and he was absolutely tiny. He has always been very curious of people due to being rescued and cared for by humans from so young, and has the greatest risk of humanization. Once he climbed on me, he would not let go, and would cling to my legs, arms or neck when I was cleaning, sweeping or attempting to escape the enclosure. However, he has learnt how to play with other monkeys and despite being the smallest he can hold his own with his brothers.
Affe – was confiscated from children who had him on a leash and were dragging him around the township by his tail. As a result, he was traumatised and is the most wary of the three orphans. He was also severely malnourished, and his fear of people made it very difficult to bottle feed him when he arrived. Affe was always initially hesitant to climb aboard, and would be the first to jump away if something startled him, but after weeks of bonding he learnt to trust me and ended up grooming my hair and drinking his whole bottle.
Being babies, they had a lot to learn, and like all babies they were on a schedule. Starting at 7am, they were bottle fed 6 times a day and given fruits and vegetables twice daily. Unlike some of the other orphans whose contact with humans was kept to a minimum (eg. Nzeru the jackal and Cubby the Hyena), baby monkeys require motherly contact and interactions. Lucky for these little guys they had each other to cuddle, play and learn from, but us monkey mothers needed to help out too. As tiny babies, volunteers would spent much longer in the enclosures with them to provide them with warmth, love and nurturing, just as a vervet monkey would do naturally. Studies have been done (as heartbreaking as they are) where ape and monkey babies are given all they need to physical survive but no love, and in almost all cases the infants die. When I arrived the babies were a little older (4-5 months), and so my interactions with them were limited to when I fed them, cleaned their enclosure, weighed them and let them out into the outdoor area. I also developed an excellent imitation vervet noise, which kind of sounds like a mix between a click and a purr, and was regularly complimented on it! They were the cheekiest little things, and often it would take me multiple attempts to leave their enclosure without having at least one of them jump on me at the last minute (particularly Aboo). Funnily enough, most people I talked to outside of the sanctuary hated vervet monkeys. They are bold, often aggressive animals who steal food and cause havoc in villages, a stark contrast from my sweet little babies that chewed my hair and cuddled into my neck.
Once the babies are older, they will be slowly introduced to the larger vervet troop at the sanctuary. The troops are made up of rescued individuals, previous orphans, injured monkeys undergoing rehabilitation, and a few who just decided to climb over the fence to get a free lunch. Once integrated, they will be on their way to being introduced into the wild. While I was volunteering one group of vervet monkeys, a combination of rescue and rehabilitated animals, was released into Kasungu National Park successfully. Re-release is a huge logistical task, taking months if not years to organize and execute and involving a lot of people, but the hard work pays off when you see how far the animals have come and witness them back in the wild where they belong.
You may have noticed in my pictures I am always wearing blue overalls and a hair net. Despite being hygienic (I was regularly peed on) and sexy (blue is the new black), orphan carers all wore the same outfits to avoid imprinting of orphans onto humans and help to minimise humanization. Due to the turnover of volunteers, the baby monkeys had a number of mothers. By all wearing the same thing, it made feeding a lot easier as the babies are most trusting if they think you are the same person. However, you would be surprised by how easily the baby vervets could tell who people were (perhaps down to their sense of smell and facial recognition)… some of us, they loved and would happily drink from and cling to. Others would so much as walk into the orphan care centre and the babies would run to the other side of their enclosure.
Humanisation is a big problem in the animal rescue and rehabilitation setting. If an animal is returned to the wild without a fear or aversion of humans, it could cause serious issues for its success in being accepted into a group or for it’s safety. Imagine if a rehabilitated hyena had no fear of humans, and associated them with being fed and pats? Release that hyena into the wild and it would walk straight up to tourists, risking being shot or hurting someone by accident after becoming frustrated with the lack of food or being scared. Unfortunately, humanization via unethical tourism practices is an increasing problem in Africa… Great White Sharks are learning to associate humans with food thanks to the chumming of water for cage diving, and then go on to attack surfers and fishermen. Baby lions are taken from their mothers so that tourists can cuddle them, lose their fear of humans, and then are sold and used for canned lion hunts where they are easy kills for hunters as they don’t run away (watch this space for a blog post on unethical tourism and the plight of Africa’s lions). For these baby monkeys, the less contact they have with humans as the get older the less dependent they will be on us for survival, making their introduction into the larger vervet group that much easier and increasing their chances of successful reintroduction to the wild.
I returned to the wildlife centre for 2 nights after tracking hyenas in the National Park for 4 weeks (blog post coming soon) and was dying to see my babies. Would they remember me? I organized to feed them, donned my blue overalls, and stood outside the enclosure ‘talking’ to them in my best vervet noises. The effect was immediate, and they started getting excited. As I entered the enclosure to feed them, they all immediately jumped on me, rushing around my head in excitement and playing on me. If it was hard to get them off me before, this time it was near impossible. While only a small piece of evidence, the fact that these babies could remember me among their other carers after 4 weeks away shows just how easy it is for us as humans to underestimate the power of animals just because we can’t communicate or understand them. Leaving them was one of the hardest parts of my trip, however I put on a brave face and while I hope they forget me (for their own sakes and success in the wild in future) I will never forget them.
Next blog post: Simba and Bella, Lilongwe’s rescue lions and volunteering at the LWC