The month of May signifies the slow final approach of winter at Londolozi. Any evidence of the summer rains has all but gone, the temperatures at night are dropping and some trees have started to lose their leaves. The change of season kickstarts a change in the way animals go about their daily lives. Many will start to gravitate towards the Sand River to make the most of its life-giving water and the lush vegetation that can be found along its banks.
There are, however, a few animal species that seem to spend all year capitilizing on the feeding opportunities around the river and Vervet monkeys are a perfect example of this. These little primates live in the huge trees that line the banks of the Sand River, and they seem to be particularly fond of the Jackalberry trees that grow in camp (they’re also not shy when it comes to helping themselves to an unattended slice of banana bread on the breakfast buffet!).
The Vervets provide equal measures of fascination to guests and frustration to camp managers. Despite the hilarity and frustration they cause, there are a few lessons that we can learn from the Vervet monkeys.
1. Take Opportunities
There is a reason why the Vervet monkey is the only monkey that is found in the Lowveld: its ability to make the most of its opportunities in an otherwise unforgiving environment. Other monkey species typically prefer more tropical climates where food is plentiful and the vegetation is lush all year round. Vervet monkeys have adapted to living in the Lowveld region of South Africa where winter means cold nights and limited food. The monkeys cast a wide net when it comes to food and will eat fruit, flowers and seeds as well as insects, bird’s eggs and even small reptiles if necessary. Londolozi’s vervets might even include your chocolate-chip cookie in their diet if said cookie is left alone for too long.
2. Be Observant
Part of the reason for the Vervet monkeys’ ability to respond quickly to opportunities is that they are masters of observation. Vervets have excellent vision; whenever the troop is out foraging, one of them will sit high up in the tree scanning the surrounding area for danger. Should the scout see anything threatening he will alert the rest of the troop in the form of an excited chattering sound and the other monkeys will retreat to safety. Monkeys are so observant we have seen them alarming at a leopard that they glimpsed well over 500 metres away!
3. Communication is Key
This is the cornerstone of Vervet monkeys’ success. The Vervets communicate not only through calling to each other but by using signs for others to interpret visually as well as through tactile methods. The monkeys’ alarm calls prove just how good their communication is, they will use different alarm calls for different predators so that the rest of the troop knows how to respond. A Martial eagle soaring overhead warrants a different call to when there is a leopard prowling through the long grass. In total, scientists have recorded 36 different types of Vervet monkey calls and I think it’s safe to assume that there are even more than that.
Like the great apes, they also make use of facial expressions to communicate. Their white eyelids and dark faces contrast well and they use these – as well as exaggerated eyebrow movements – to get their point across. Touch is important to help reaffirm social bonds and they will meticulously groom each other in order to keep the peace in the troop.
Humans sometimes shy away from communicating how we really feel but it is such an important skill to learn in order to prevent conflict, make good decisions and lead a more peaceful life in general. We have much to learn from the Vervets in this department!
4. Serving Others
Remember the sentinel that sits at the top of the tree looking our for danger – that is usually the head male of the troop. Although the head Vervet could easily live a lazy life and delegate responsibility to subordinate troop members, he chooses the servant-leadership option. In the same way, the female Vervets all share the responsibility of looking after the young. If an infant is threatened, any and all of the other members of the troop will rush to the young one’s aid. The Vervets all take time to groom one another to ensure that every individual is clean and taken care of. This lesson is especially applicable to us. Studies on humans have revealed that helping others helps to reduce stress and leave one with a long lasting feeling of fulfilment. Try be ready to lend a hand; it’s for your benefit as well!
5. Have Fun
The life of a Vervet monkey is tough. Vervets have to be on constant watch for their numerous predators, they have to search endlessly for food and the hot summers and cold winters can be brutal. Despite these hardships, the monkeys have found a productive way to get through the tough times; they play and have fun, especially the young ones. The act of playing helps strengthen the infants’ muscles and improves their agility as they swing through the tree canopies. Play time also improves social cohesion as parents strengthen the bonds with their offspring and the youngsters integrate themselves into the troop. We too should deliberately take time off from the hardships of life and spend some time having fun with family and friends; not only will it improve your relationships but it will help to relieve some of that pressure that come along with the busyness of life.
Vervet monkeys may seem like part of the furniture here but if you take the time to look a bit deeper and study them as they go about their business, you too may be able to glean some insights as to how they try and get the most out of their lives. Nature is filled with lessons, we just need to be willing to learn.
Bottom line, be more like the monkeys!