Vervet troop release day!
One week inside their purpose built, temporary holding enclosure helped acclimatize the troop away from the security of their familiar sights, sounds and smells of their captive environment at the Munda Wanga sanctuary, to this new, very wild and very different place. Every bird call (no matter how small) startled them. The noisy hippos just up the stream must have been a frightening start to each day. Where the lions at Munda Wanga would remain several hundred metres from them behind bars, they now strolled by their holding enclosure at night as they hunted in the area.
First thing on the morning of release day we scattered food around, to tempt them out of their safe place and out into the wild bush of Kafue National Park, and to try and keep them all together as one troop, rather than them scattering at the first sense of freedom. All were free to leave the holding enclosure at the same time, though it was the youngsters who were first out, leaving the older ones to look around themselves with new eyes now. The lush vegetation which was thought never to be available to them, could now be theirs to try to eat, to climb and play in, to shelter under. The fruits and seed pods could now be picked and sampled for themselves – never an option in their captivity.
The three radio-collared adults were some of the last to leave the holding enclosure. Alpha male Bagheera looked to be the most anxious of all: reality dawning on him that his troop was now truly his to lead in this new place with no fences; that the wild adult male who had been hanging around ever since the troop arrived the week before would now be challenging him to that right; but primarily for a strong adult male such as Bagheera, he was now free. We don’t know his history, so we can’t know how much of his life was spent in captivity; whether in fact he had ever known a life in the wild or if he’d been snatched from his slaughtered mother’s body by poachers when he was still suckling, as is so often the case with these orphans.
His second in command, adult male Mapepe, looked around himself, uncertain what to do, but keeping a close eye on his leader and friend Bagheera for the first step. Finally, Bagheera had made his decision and his personal plan of action. He popped his head out of the door, stepped outside carefully, took a look around him … and ran. Mapepe immediately followed, along with eight other younger ones.
After a little more time to muster up the confidence, Juliet finally emerged with her one week old baby boy and her one year old son. She joined her friends on top of the holding enclosure and in the surrounding bushes and trees. They remained there the whole day, taking it all in, picking at the food we’d scattered and finding their own.
Meanwhile, the moment Bagheera and his followers had left, part of our team left immediately on foot through the bush with the tracking equipment to try to bring them all back. They were running at great speed and the signals were often weak, showing the gap between us all. In a bush alive with lions and elephants, we don’t run and thus we could easily have lost them all, had we not set off immediately.
As it was, when we did finally catch up with the 2 radio-collared individuals whom we’d been tracking for 2.5km already, the others were no longer with them. Lengthy daily searches commenced immediately and continue. Food and water is plentiful throughout the bush at this time, which is why we always release during the rainy season. In this way we give our troops the very best chance of survival, with or without the protection of a troop, whether their own or a wild one.
Zoe Lapthorn, Project Manager for the Zambia Primate Project, (formerly the Lunga Luswishi Wildlife Project)