In 1989, a farm worker brought Arthur Hunt and Dave Du Toit an orphaned vervet monkey found in their orchards. They didn't know what to do with the baby male monkey and for the first few days tried to care for the baby as best they could. When they called the humane society and various wildlife organizations, they were told the vervets were classified as vermin. The best solution was to place the baby in a bag and bludgeon it to death. This was of course not an option for them having grown quite attached to the baby, now named Regis. They didn't realize it at the time but their passion for the vervets would grow to what is now the Vervet Monkey Foundation.
It is amazing to hear the legal battles which ensued over Regis, as they were not allowed legally to keep him without a permit. Arthur went to trial and was ordered to kill Regis. Arthur actually lied to the judge and told him they had taken Regis up into the woods and shot him. As Arthur and Dave began studying the vervets on their own, word began to spread and other orphaned monkeys were landing on their doorstep. Thanks to the help of a baboon rehabilitator in the area who provided the orphaned monkeys with permits through her foundation, the monkeys were spared. After several years of study, the Vervet Foundation was established in 1997.
Arthur's background prior to becoming a primatologist is facinating. Arthur and Dave had been beekeepers prior to working with monkeys. Arthur had been hired by the government to increase crop output and quality by managing pollination. He apparently was very successful and made quite a bit of cash. Prior to beekeeping, he fixed clocks and watchs, having a photographic memory for mechanics. We were told when Rolex couldn't fix a watch, they would send it to him. Basically, he's eccentric, a genius and madly passionate about vervets. He reminds me of...think a liberal, not as well dressed, version of Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (with a British-South African accent mix) as a primatologist, with the silvery pony tail of Sean Connery in Medicine Man. Interesting character.
Little was known about the vervets because of their "vermin" classification and were not really studied. Through the research over the last 15 years, we are just beginning to understand what a valuable contribution they make to the environment. It has been determined that certain trees and vegetation actually rely on the monkeys to spread their seeds. The monkeys actually remove protective linings from otherwise impenetrable seeds and conveniently deposits them in a pile of fecal compost. With these trees and vegetation brings birds and mice, which brings snakes, which brings larger animals, etc. The verets have been found to groom dik diks and small bucks. They also help control insect populations by eating insect eggs, thus preventing the emergence of adult insects. Unfortunately the farmers blame the vervets for destroying crops. Through the studies, they have found that the vervets typically only eat the fruit which has already fallen to the ground, thus too ripe to sell as produce. Convincing the farmers of this is a bit of a challenge, particularly after years of resentment toward them.
Now about the vervets. The most distinguishing feature about the vervets is the color of their skin and genitalia...robins egg blue. The male penis is a rasperry red color and the sacks, blue. (You don't typically think of monkeys as being colorful...interesting features...I can hear the jokes). When the babies are born (baby season is Nov-Dec), their skin and face are pink with a black fuzzy fur covering their body. As they mature, their faces turn black, and their coats turn salt and pepper grey with varying hints of yellow. Depending upon their species and ranking, their coats will vary in degrees of grey and yellow. Their eyes are a beautiful deep burnt orange.
The vervets are an "old world monkey" indigenous to South Africa. They are highly intelligent living in intricate, socially structured troops. The troops have a hierarchy, with an alpha male as chief. They use an elaborate verbal and physical language to communicate. Certain sounds warn of a ground enemy, others of an air predator and a warm, cooing sound when they are excited to see you. When they are not excited to see you, they "high brow", raising their eye brows and then bobbing their heads up and down. It's amazing how quickly you can anger a monkey by giving him/her a high brow.
Due to years of being classified as vermin and used in mass for lab experiments, the vervets are currently classified under the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species as threatened for extinction. (At the foundation, there actually is an enclosure of SIV lab monkeys, infected with SIV and now abandoned..don't worry parents, we do not physically work with these isolated monkeys) Progress is slowly being made to reverse their status. In the Northern Province of SA, the Vervet Foundation successfully fought to remove their status as vermin. It is now illegal to kill a vervet without a permit. This a great victory for the foundation, however more work is needed to be done. Hopefully through education, community outreach and rehabilitation the vervets will return to a healthy population, cohabitating with society.