Just Like Us

9th June 2010

All the primates released at Monkeyland used to be in captivity and for most of these individuals being released at Monkeyland is their only chance of freedom.  Amongst other species Monkeyland is home to primates species such as Black-and-white Ruffed Lemurs, Ringtailed Lemurs Squirrel Monkeys, Spectacled Langurs, Capuchins, Vervet Monkeys, and Gibbons. 


The word ‘primate’ means ‘first’.  It is the name that a famous naturalist/scientist named Linnaeus chose for the animal order containing monkeys, apes and man.  According to recent records the primate order contains thirteen families, which embody 237 species, who inhabit five continents today.


Monkeys, Lemurs and Apes are our closest living relatives.  They are scientifically classified as primates, just like us.  So to make sure that there is no confusion I will refer to them as non-human primates, or simply as Monkeys, Lemurs and Apes.


I’m sure that most of you would like to argue that we aren’t related – or even similar - to Monkeys, Lemurs and/or Apes. I have written this article and described a few non-human primate behaviourisms, which may, or may perhaps not make you consider that we are indeed ‘related’ after all.


Let’s begin with the natural fact: Humans are genetically very similar to Chimpanzees and Gorillas. In fact, we share 98% of our DNA with Chimpanzees. Given a human and Chimpanzee, you can easily tell them apart, but given only their DNA, you can barely tell them apart.


CHILD’S PLAY: The young of non-human primates love to play, and their parents encourage them to do so.  As with our human children, there are three main types of play; acrobatic, investigatory and social. 


During acrobatic play youngsters will throw themselves into wildly abandoned gymnastic movements during which they utilize all their muscles.  Leaping, jumping, sliding, rolling, twisting, rotating, running and even somersaults are performed at increasing intensities. Several important qualities of play are evident in all primate behaviour, these include: risk-taking, energy expenditure, theme establishing and the varying of that theme.  Throughout play-bouts young primates push themselves toward the limit of their muscular ability.  In this way, they establish how far they can go and where their weaknesses lie, much the same way as their human relatives do.

During investegory play, objects found in the proximity of young primates are examined and tested, they may grasp, let go, bite, hit, roll, juggle, balance, throw, chase, catch and play-kill the object.  Even if these objects are edible they are not usually eaten because the value of the object lies in its role as a source of inventive manipulation. 


In social play, exaggerated interactions occur with the primate’s companions.  During social play, young primates will flee from their companions, chasing them. They will fight with them, mock mate with them (play the mummy-and-daddy game), hunt and play-kill them.  Like human children the ‘victim’ will play ‘dead’ for only a few seconds and then jump up and continue play. 


During play behaviour young primates learn a great deal about their bodies and those of their companions.  The difference between playful behaviour and non-playful behaviour is that play behaviour is uneconomic in energy terms with its execution, while non-play behaviour is more of a learning experience, which resembles play.  The elements of playful behaviour are exaggerated, amplified, re-ordered, repeated and often fragmented when compared with non-playful behaviour. 


In their early years, non-human primates have plenty to learn.  Much of the behaviour will be employed in adult life to find food and shelter; move through the trees; react to danger; assert itself socially; and to find a mate.  Some of the learning appears to come from exploration of its immediate surroundings, while a great deal of the rest comes from play.  Not just with peers in the social group but also with adults.


Similar to us humans non-human primate parents spend a considerable time playing with their youngsters, some moments are gentle and tender, and some are rough and pain inflicting, but this all forms part of the offspring’s schooling.


The games the young non-human primates play are mostly playful, but at times they may be serious and occasionally one of the more vigorous youngsters will go too far and provoke cries of pain from its companions.  Then, as with humans, an adult will approach and separate the fighting youngsters and distribute a few clouts if necessary, and the fighting will stop.


At Monkeyland we find that playing together builds hierarchies, cements social bonds and oils the wheels of the non-human primate society. It also helps to teach the young Monkeys, Lemurs and Apes something about life.


TRICKERY AND LITTLE WHITE LIES: Humans aren't the only primates that sometimes trick or lie to others to get out of trouble - or to get what they want.


Groups of non-human primates chose to challenge each other all the time. Usually the toughest group will win. But once in a while, a wimpy group tricks the bullies group. The wimps' secret weapon? Great acting. Let’s use our local Vervet Monkeys at Monkeyland as example: In the middle of a battle or tiff about some arbitry object, the monkeys in the wimpy group will stand on their hind legs. They’ll look off in the distance and pretend to be frightened. Then they frantically bark an alarm call that means Eagle! even though they don't really see one. The tough gang dashes for cover, the best place to escape this ace hunter. Meanwhile, the wimpy gang is safe from any more bullying.


During another incident a young Vervet Monkey from Monkeyland named Angus played a trick on Donna, an adult female. He saw her digging up delicious roots. Mmmm ... his favourite food. The problem was, Angus couldn't dig them up for himself. His hands weren't strong enough to yank the roots out of the hard ground. And Donna wasn't about to share her snack with him. Angus checked to make sure no other Vervets were watching. Then he screamed at the top of his lungs - a signal that someone was attacking him. Mom raced to the rescue and saw only Donna. Of course, she thought Donna was the attacker. With angry grunts, Mom chased Donna into the forest. As soon as Donna was out of the way, Angus swiped her meal and ate the roots in peace.


Then there is Picasso, a Capuchin monkey from Monkeyland, who is a real bully. He always picks fights with the younger Capuchin males and he especially loves to pick on a little youngster named Joey. One time, Picasso hurt Joey in a fight. The wound wasn't very serious. Even so, Joey limped around for days. He was in terrible pain ... or was he? Joey limped only when Picasso was around. Whenever he was out of Picasso's sight, Joey walked just fine. He guessed right that even a bully wouldn't beat up a limping lad.


Another example is that of Monkeyland’s opportunistic Capuchin male named Peanut. Nobody messes with the dominant male Capuchin. If you want what Aldo’s got, too bad. The word ‘share’ is not part of a dominant Capuchin male’s vocabulary. For example, Peanut had tried to woo Aldo’s girlfriend Lisa. But when he went near Lisa when Aldo was around, the Aldo and his mates would beat him up. So he figured out how to get rid of the Aldo and get the female: Peanut hung out near the couple and let out a terrible noise that meant, "I'm being attacked!" Three of Peanut’s pals dashed to help him. They spied Aldo and thought he was the attacker. So they attacked him. While the Aldo was busy fighting them off, the Peanut chased the Lisa in the opposite direction. At least for a while, Lisa was his "girlfriend."


YOU SNOOZE, YOU LOOSE: Ever heard this expression? It often applies to us humans and so it does for our non-human relatives.


As example: All Baboons enjoy eating meat. One female baboon from The Crags was therefore no different to the norm. One day she spotted a male baboon with a duiker he'd just killed. The female snuggled up to him, but he offered her no food. Next, she started grooming (cleaning and combing) his hair - a sign of friendliness. Still no food offer. But the grooming made the male feel comfortable and relaxed. Soon he fell asleep, forgetting all about his meal. That's when the female stole the meat for her very own meaty feast.


WORKING FOR A LIVING: Ancient Egyptian paintings show that Baboons were once domesticated as pets, In the Egyptian tomb paintings the primates seem to be depicted eating fruit rather than picking it, but in actual fact they were actually trained to aid the workers during harvest.  Baboons weighs less than grown men, therefore they were less likely to break the fragile branches of the trees as they gathered the fruit.


At Monkeyland the primates are actually working for a living too! As odd as this may seem it is actually rather true. In their case ‘work’ actually means ’lead your live as you wish to – because people will come from far to watch you swing about the trees’.  Without them swinging and playing about in the Monkeyland forest – there will be no interest in visiting the sanctuary. If there were no tourist visiting our sanctuary, there would be no Monkeyland. 


INTELLIGANCE:  If a monkey uses its intelligence to solve a problem, it can (as we humans do) demonstrate the problem’s solution to others.  For example, the scientists who were studying a group of Japanese Macaques in the wild put sweet potatoes on the beach as a way of gaining the monkeys’ trust and getting them out in the open.  In 1953 an eighteen-month-old female named Imo was seen to wash the sweet potatoes to remove the mud before eating them.  Ten years later the idea had spread throughout the troop, and was being transferred to the next generation.  Today, the sweet potatoes the monkeys are given are cleaned first.  But the monkeys still wash them.  Perhaps they like to wash them because the saltwater improves the taste by seasoning it.  Naturally such a trait will only spread through the originator’s sphere of influence, and as a result monkey behaviour is very variable. 


Scientists in a national park in Africa noticed something odd.  Some Chimpanzees were chomping on chunks of soil from a termite mound.  The scientists noticed something else too.  The Chimpanzees didn’t eat the dirt everyday.  But whenever they did, they usually had diarrhea.  Can you guess what the scientist found when they studied the dirt?  It was full of chemicals like the ones in diarrhea medicine. 


In 1963, a young female Japanese Snow Monkey called Mukubuli ventured into a hotspring to retrieve a few soyabeans she had dropped. Soon the all the other Snow Monkeys started entering the hotsprings, and this behaviour quickly spread throughout the entire Snow Monkey troop.  In winter months the temperature of their homeland dropped below freezing so by relaxing in the hotspring (which reaches a temperature of about 43degrees) the Mukubuli and the other Snow Monkeys are now able to escape the winter cold.


A few months ago a guest named Mary, visited Monkeyland and filmed a few Capuchin monkeys during her tour of the sanctuary.  The Capuchin Monkeys were eating fruit such as oranges, limes and peppadews. However, she noticed something odd.  They kept on rubbing themselves with the juicy mess.  Mary sent the video recording to us with a little note.  In the accompanying letter she said, “They really got into it, drooling like crazy, spit flying everywhere.  Whenever I show people the videotape I made at Monkeyland they think this part is on fast-forward!”  In her letter Mary also mentions that she became so curious that she decided to mimic the monkeys.  She rubbed herself with the fruit, as the monkeys did and found to her surprise that her mosquito bites healed faster.  As I explained to Mary in a letter shortly after receiving the video tape:  The Capuchin Monkeys cover their bodies with the fruit juice to help their skin stay healthy and they also use it as a mosquito repellent.  At times Monkeyland’s Capuchins also use the Knobwood for toothache, the Capeplain helps to regulate their body temperature in summer and they use bits of Aloe to treat cuts and other skin problems.  It therefor seems as if the Capuchin Monkeys know how to use the Monkeyland forest as a chemist!


LOVING MUM’S: Female non-human primates are excellent mothers.  Let’s use our local Capuchin monkeys from Monkeyland as example. During the first few weeks of the newborn baby Capuchin’s life the mother primate will not allow any other members of the troop to touch her baby.  Later she will allow other females to cuddle her baby; and she will let other youngsters play with it.  If an infant dies, the mother Capuchin will often carry the tiny corpse with her for a week or more, dispute it’s advanced decomposition.  Mother Capuchins are devoted parents.  They defend their offspring fiercely.  


THE DATING GAME: Like us humans Monkeys, Lemurs and Apes do not pair up readily. Their reproductive behaviour is preceded by acts of courtship (flirting), which vary considerably in vigour.  With the majority of species it generally involves a good deal of chasing, sniffing, facial-licking and long periods of mutual grooming which build up the pair bond. 


Non-human primates are inherently sociable animals, nearly always encountered in groups.  The size and social structure of the Monkey-, Lemur- and Ape troops sharing the forest at Monkeyland vary, however, in crucial ways.  The key distinction between the species thriving in the Monkeyland forest are some that tend to be polygamous, whilst other are monogamous.


Courtship is a slower and more involved affair among monogamous monkeys (as with us humans) than it is among those monkeys that do not establish lasting bonds.  A newly formed pair of Douroucouli monkeys, for example, may spend many days examining and sniffing one another, sitting close together, grooming and entwining their bodies before mating, but with Capuchins and Vervets, courtship is brief and to the point.  A female will approach a male from her group, or occasionally one from a neighbouring group, and make mouth gestures to which he replies in kind if interested - they then mate and separate. 


Kingship, age, and sex determine the network of relationships individual Capuchins have, there is no fixed ranking amongst Capuchins.  Unlike us human’s however female Capuchins do the courting! They approach the selected male with their eyebrows highly raised and beckon the male to follow them with gestures and typical sounds.  This is often a difficult task, because the males are not always interested in courtship.  But when the female is successful in her attempts to mate, the male will respond with the same performance and gestures; following the female and mating with her. 


VANITY AND AFFECTION: All primate species groom themselves. Amongst non-human primates self-grooming is important because it keeps the exterior (the primate’s fur) clean and untangled.  Social-grooming also important as it ensures overall hygiene and helps build social bonds.  Grooming helps establish positions in the hierarchy (e.g.: mother and child), and may reduce stress and calm any aggression. 


AT THE END OF THE DAY: We may or may not be related, but there is no argument to the fact that we are similar in more ways than most of us would care to admit.


Altogether there are 237 species (kinds) of primates in the world.  Most of them live in forests and most are endangered.  Why are so many primate species endangered? One big reason is that forests keep getting cut down.  The primates living in those forests depend on them for food and shelter.  Once the forest is gone, the forest animals become gonners too.


The good news is that many sanctuaries throughout the World, such as Monkeyland, are working hard to save the remaining forests – and the primate species who live there.


By visiting Monkeyland you will not only learn many fascinating facts about the primates whom live here.  You will see first hand, how happy primates are when they are free.  The majority of the furry inhabitants at the sanctuary are originally from laboratories, breeders stock and the pet trade.  After a process of rehabilitation and de-humanisation (the Eden Syndrome Process), the primates are released into the Tsitsikama-type, multiple canopy, forest of Monkeyland.  At first this is a bewildering experience for the primates, since most of their lives have been spent in cages they have forgotten most of their wild ways.  They therefore have to delve deep into their instincts to re-acquire the knowledge essential for them to live naturally in the forest. 


For example, the most obvious thing monkeys do, is swing from tree to tree!  Well, Monkeyland's inhabitants have had to re-learn this very simple task!  This is where the most significant aspect of Monkeyland comes to light - it is the beginning of a happy ending to what could have been a sad story if the primates had not been given the chance to be free.


At Monkeyland you will meet many interesting, many odd and many friendly individuals (human and non-human). At the end of the day, simply by visiting us at the sanctuary you will be assisting us in our fight to protect our closest living relatives – the non-human primate.