by Zoe Melvin, a volunteer research assistant from Cardiff University who worked with the Primate and Predator Project from September 2014 – August 2015
I write this as I am sat on the ground in the African forest surrounded by Samango monkeys foraging in the leaf litter. It occurs to me how incredible it is to be within a wild troop of monkeys observing their natural behaviour. But how naturally can humans and primates live together?
There are many examples of human-primate conflict. Primates are intelligent animals that learn quickly by observation and experience and can work in a group to achieve a goal. Cape baboons have become a serious issue, raiding houses and bins regularly and harassing locals and tourists for food. This problem resulted in the killing of 13 adult male baboons in 2014. Kruger National Park has also considered killing problem primates that harass tourists while they eat.
While this behaviour is unwelcome, it is the fault of human beings who feed primates or leave food out for them. In this way, humans provide an exploitable food source. Primates quickly learn that appearing aggressive or appearing to beg may win them an easy meal. And this conflict is getting worse as the human population grows with further conversion of natural habitats, particularly since many primates are also efficient raiders of commercial crops.
The interesting question is: what happens when the people trying to protect primate species are potentially part of the problem? We always think that these problems are far removed from being a research assistant but our jobs bring us closer to primates than anyone else. It is important to be aware of our actions and their consequences.
Take Steve for example, an adult male samango monkey here at Lajuma. Steve is a formidable alpha male who was in charge of his troop for many years. He started to become a problem years ago when he began to associate student camps with food after leftovers were left next to the braai area overnight. Steve began to learn that humans were a source of nutrition. It got worse as he started to break into the residences and steal food. He became more and more persistent in his searches, sometimes even investigating researchers bags if they were left unattended. When measures were put in place to prevent his raiding he tried his luck with other residences. Finally, Steve’s love of food overtook his desire to be alpha male and he appeared to simply give up his troop in order to conduct lone searches of the area for more food.
The key message is to not let problems reach this stage, to nip them in the bud before it’s too late. After all, prevention is better than cure!
It appears that the best form of combat is a dual strategy. Firstly, the Primate and Predator Project aims to prevent the association in the first place. We make sure all rubbish and dishes are cleared away from outside eating areas as soon as we are finished and do not eat openly in front of primates when in the field. They are intelligent and will learn to associate humans or bags with food simply by observing people eating. We try to go a good distance away from the troop to eat, hide behind a rock or bush and eat subtly. Maybe even pretend to forage for our food! We take all food rubbish such as fruit skins home with us so that they do not learn the taste and image of human foods. We also try and avoid eating brightly coloured or brightly scented foods like oranges that would appeal to the monkeys’ senses. Avoiding displaying food in windows, such as in fruit bowls, will also prevent unwanted attention from the primates.
The second strategy is to prevent raiding. We try and keep all rubbish bins secured shut or kept inside where the monkeys cannot reach them. We keep residences (especially kitchens) monkey proof by securing windows and doors. If keeping windows and doors closed all the time isn’t a feasible option, then try installing a screen door or bars on the windows. However, the holes must be of the right size: those monkeys can squeeze into anywhere!
The most important thing with preventing problem primates is persistence; it requires commitment and often a group effort. Any time a monkey successfully raids a residence, they will get a reward and that behaviour will be reinforced. So it is important that we don’t get complacent! Many research centres have a quick turnover of people or have guests staying regularly. We want to make sure these people are aware of the precautions put in place and what they must do to abide by them.
By doing all of these things we can ensure that research into the amazing world of primates can continue.