Caring for orphaned monkeys and baboons is a huge part of our work at the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre. We caught up with Animal Rehabilitation Manager, Victoria Curr-Smith, to find out more about the careful process of looking after baby primates and getting them ready for a life back in the wild!
Roughly how many orphaned monkeys and baboons do you look after each year?
It varies! We took in five vervet orphans in our most recent orphan season, which runs from November and March.
Where do these animals come from?
A lot of the babies are rescued from the illegal pet trade. Sadly, in Malawi it’s not uncommon for baby monkeys and baboons to be stolen from their families and sold on the roadside. Sometimes a kind member of the public will rescue them and bring them to us. Other times we’re alerted by the authorities and help DNPW with confiscations.
What happens when the babies first arrive?
It depends on what kind of state they’re in. If they need urgent medical attention then they’ll go straight to the vet clinic. One baby vervet we took in recently still had a leash attached to her waist when she arrived (pictured above centre), so we had to cut that off and check for any wounds. Usually the babies are frightened, disoriented and malnourished, so our first priority is to make sure they’re fed, hydrated and warm. They usually need around-the-clock care, so a staff member or volunteer will be on hand for feeds every two hours. We also have to be really careful that all intakes are safe from diseases like tuberculosis, which is highly contagious to primates, so all new animals spend their first six weeks in our special quarantine block.
How do you go about pairing an orphan with a foster mum?
We currently have three vervet monkey foster mums – Lulu, Target and Rain. They live in our quarantine section and are almost continually fostering babies. Baboon fostering works a little differently – we don’t have designated foster mums but we know which individuals will be best suited to fostering a baby, depending on what’s going on with troop dynamics at a particular time. In the past we’ve used Kezi, Ivy and Syren as baboon foster mums.
Introducing babies and foster mums is different every time – some pairs take days or even weeks to click, but others are much faster. Rain is currently fostering her first baby, Tao, and we were blown away by how quickly she took to it – within hours of opening the gate between their enclosures she was grooming and cuddling him (pictured below right)!
We start by putting the baby in an enclosure next to the foster mum, so they can smell and interact with each other through the safety of a wire fence. The process is carefully monitored by one of our team – we know how to read their body language and behaviour so can usually tell when it’s safe to put them in the same enclosure. If the baby or mum gets stressed at any time we separate them and give them breaks.
Is it easy to find foster mums? Are some animals better at it than others?
Yes! Our foster mums are typically chosen because they’ve struggled to fit into troop life in some way. Sometimes they can be aggressive towards other adults, other times they just lack the confidence to live as part of a group. All of our three vervet foster mums were formally kept as pets so they never really learned the social skills monkeys need to thrive in a troop – but they love being mums!
How long do the babies stay with their foster mums?
We try and integrate babies into a troop once they’re older than six months but ideally under a year old. We try not to take the orphans away from their foster mums until we have another baby that needs to be looked after. The foster mums don’t seem to mind having a rotation of different babies. Target, for example, is always happy as long as she has a little one to look after!
How do you integrate the babies into troops and how long does the process take?
Again the timescale can vary a lot. Some monkeys bond with troops in a couple of weeks whereas other times it can take up to six months before a troop accepts a new individual. Our plan is to take all five babies from this orphan season and integrate them into the same troop – though not necessarily at the same time. Generally it’s easier to integrate new babies into a troop individually or in pairs.
We currently have six vervet troops, one blue monkey troop, two yellow baboon troops and two olive baboon troops. In general, the troops are designated as either releasable or non-releasable. Unless an animal is really obviously non-releasable – for example because it has a physical disability or is too humanised – we will try and integrate it into a release troop first. We also take into account the age and gender of animals already in the troop and try and keep that as natural as we can.
How do you release primates back into the wild?
Troops spend a year in our pre-release enclosure on site where we do daily observations on things like group cohesion and predator awareness. Once we are happy that they are behaviourally and medically fit for release the troop will move to a release enclosure in one of the protected parks. This is always done in wet season when food is plentiful. They stay in this bush enclosure for a short period of time and once our team thinks they are ready they will be released. We continue to feed the troop for a short time after release and conduct post-release monitoring for about a year.
We never release females or juveniles on their own but we do release adult males either on their own or in small groups. Adult males naturally migrate between troops and spend time on their own whereas females stay with their natal troop for life.