Releasing is quite a controversial subject and there are some schools of thought that say it is not feasible at all and some even go so far as to say that releasing is like “taking lambs out to slaughter”.
Here at the Wild Animal Trauma Centre& Haven we love and care for each unique individual as if they were our own children and if we thought they were going to die within a month or two there is no way we even would consider releasing them.
With 13 Troops released, we are confident in the success of our program.
1. Achieving a Release-ready Troop
The release of a troop of rehabilitated vervet monkeys in essence starts on the day the first member of that troop is admitted to the centre. To achieve a release-ready troop takes a few years and can take up to five or six years. For a group of Vervets to be considered release-ready, the troop must consist of a mix of males and females across the different age spectrum's and ideally must have three or four adult males. The monkeys at WATCH that are in the rehabilitation program are permitted to breed and left to raise and care for their own young. Allowing the birth and rearing of infants within a troop ensures the group is strongly bonded and the females able to adequately care for their offspring. Each individual in the troop must be in good health and physically fit. Our large pre-release enclosures allow for full pace running and the enclosure enrichment aid and assist with the monkeys being adept at climbing, balancing and swinging. The individuals in the troop must no longer be humanized and have regained their suspicion and or fear of humans and dogs.
2. Securing and Preparing a Suitable Release Site
When searching for a release site, certain criteria must also be met. The intended site must have suitable and sufficient food sources. The presence of a perennial water source is essential and adequate roosting sites which provide protection from the elements are also a must. The intended site must be sufficiently distanced from any human habitation and in South Africa this is becoming more and more difficult to achieve as our population grows and spreads. On our searches for release sites we also take note of the presence of predators at potential sites. It is virtually impossible to find the perfect site with no predators but we must be mindful of the home range and numbers of said predators.
Once the troop is release-ready and the ideal release site has been established we have to apply for a release permit. A week or two before the intended release date, the team set off with all necessary equipment to build temporary cages or "hacking cages" at the release site. These cages allow for the monkeys to adapt and adjust to the new surroundings within a "safe space". The hacking cages are erected in such a manner that the monkeys have both sunlight and shaded shelter. Perches, roosts, feeding stations and climbing structures are provided within the temporary enclosure.
3. Capture and Transport
Capture day is a tense and exciting time for the whole team and extremely stressful for the troop. For this reason the entire process is kept as quick and precise as possible in order to eliminate any excessive or prolonged stress for the troop. Capture is done by netting and each individual is given a brief health check and a dose of dewormer before being placed in transport boxes. We begin capture early in the morning allowing us to work in the cool of the day while still providing us with enough time to transport and get the monkeys settled into the hacking cage.
The troop is kept in the hacking cage for a few days to get used to the sites and sounds of their new home. Logistically it is almost impossible to erect a large pre-release enclosure on site and as a result the troop does not get the daily exercise they need and relations between the troop’s members also become strained if confined to a small space for an extended period of time. On the day of the release we open the hacking cages in the mid to late afternoon allowing the monkeys enough time to thoroughly enjoy the freedom of unrestricted space without giving them too much time to wander too far before settling down for the evening. This ensures the troop stays together.
The “big work” of the year starts for our team after release as it is our duty to track, monitor and feed a released troop. In the first two to three weeks post release the troop is fed daily with fresh fruit and vegetables. This means the team must prepare and transport food, often to difficult to reach places in order to keep the group well-fed. As the troop becomes more familiar with its new home range and learns where to find its own food we begin cutting back on the food we provide. Our team will systematically cut back on the supplement feeding firstly by reducing the amount of feed, then by cutting the number of feeding stations provided. We then begin feeding every second day, every third day and so on. Vervet monkeys are opportunists, so as long as we are providing food they will continue eating what we provide even if there is an abundance of natural food supply.
To ensure that the troop is well fed is not the only reason for post release support; the team also monitors the behaviour of the troop and keeps a keen eye out for any injuries or expulsions of troop members. We aim to do at least three months post release monitoring but have had the experience of doing it for less time when a troop has moved on to totally inaccessible terrain. It is bitter - sweet to not see “your” monkeys anymore and we always hope to meet up with them, but in all honesty, the less they rely on humans and the less they want to be near us, the better job we have done.
We are often asked how we can let them go after all we have invested in them – emotionally, physically and financially. They are our “babies”, each with its own name, personality and habits, but these monkeys are never really ours.
They do not belong to us, we are only the temporary guardians until we can return them to the life that they were intended to live.