Zoe Lapthorn, Project Manager for the Zambia Primate Project, (formerly the Lunga Luswishi Wildlife Project) which rescues and rehabilitates needy primates back into the wild where they belong, reports on the latest release at the project.
Bagheera and Mapepe - two Vervet Baboons!
Upon release on 12th December, Bagheera and Mapepe bolted out of the holding enclosure and ran and ran, closely pursued by some of the troop. The only way to follow and find them was to follow on foot using the tracking equipment. These two radio-collared adult males were moving very fast and it was impossible to keep up safely in lion and elephant territory.
We finally found them just under 3km from the release site! None of the other monkeys were found along the way, nor were they with these two adult males. Bagheera was still leading, Mapepe was finding it very difficult to keep up and was already several hundred metres behind his friend. Neither appeared afraid and as such, neither wished to follow us back. They just continued running directly north as they had upon release. With such a strong sense of direction, we needn’t have worried ourselves, but as it was Bagheera who was leading, we could not know if the same applied to Mapepe’s own internal GPS.
Sadly, we had to give up following them late that same afternoon as we were slowly becoming surrounded by two angry herds of elephants, each having made it quite clear from the outset that we were not welcome in their area. As their circling manoeuvres became more apparent, we had no choice but to back off and leave these two stunning males to their own devices for the rest of their first day of their new lives in the wild. It was with trepidation that we reached the bush road over 2.5km later, knowing they did not wish to follow us and that we could not follow and protect them either.
Surprisingly and wonderfully, the very next morning we found Mapepe’s signal, followed it and found him at the side of the bush road. He had been joined by four ‘missing’ members of the release troop. We saw Bagheera the same day and managed to move him just under 1km closer to the release troop. However, at that point, a large troop of yellow baboons crossed our path and Bagheera ran off with them!
We were becoming increasingly concerned for Mapepe though, as he was leading a solitary existence ever since his release on 12 December. Whilst this is not unusual in the wild, Mapepe is not a wild monkey yet and he still needs guidance and protection until he has had a chance to learn the ways of the wild. We track and find him almost every day and, as with Bagheera, we have developed an individual supplemental feeding programme for Mapepe too. He doesn’t always eat it, which gave us great hope that he was finding food for himself and not needing our help. We owe it to him to give him the same assistance as with the rest of the release troop and so we continue.
We tried many, many times to encourage him to follow us so that we could lead him back to his friends, but he only ever refused. He had seen us with the troop on one occasion recently, but ran past and didn’t stop until he reached the bush road. We followed him and encouraged him back, but he was just not interested.
It was in this way that we realised that the only way to offer Mapepe the protection he so desperately needed was to reunite him with Bagheera and hope that his friend would accept him back. If successful, the best we could hope for at this stage would be for the two of them to remain with the yellow baboons and help them in their adaptation to their new lives in the wild, showing them where the best seasonal fruits could be found and affording them superb protection from any wild monkeys or baboons who should try and encroach on their territory. The baboons would alert them to all the dangers of the great African bush, few of which they would have known from their captive lives. The next best we could hope for would be for the two of them to move off on their own as two bachelor males, in search of a wild troop to lead, with Bagheera at the head and Mapepe as his number two.
With this in mind, we spent time trying to move Mapepe closer to the range we were slowly beginning to identify as Bagheera’s. Our attempts were all in vain and he simply refused to move with us. In the meantime, his own range rapidly expanded and we were starting to find him heading south up to 3.5km further away from Bagheera! This was particularly exasperating as Bagheera’s range was in completely the opposite direction and it was becoming evident that we would not succeed.
On 30 December we found these two males 3.5km apart from each other. It was with great surprise and hope therefore that the following day, New Year’s Eve, their signals were found in the same direction. As we neared the bush road 1km from our camp, both signals grew stronger and still in the same direction. We realised today was the day our plan could possibly work, but only if Mapepe would follow us, as we did not want to remove Bagheera from the protection of his baboon troop.
And so it was on the morning of New Year’s Eve that the wonderful spectacle of two stunning adult male vervet monkeys was witnessed, leaping and bounding through the long summer grasses of Zambia’s rainy season … together! We’ll never know just how this came to be, but there they were, running towards us, each knowing we had brought food for him, though neither knowing we had also been finding and feeding the other one. A truly magnificent day. They remained together for the rest of that day and Bagheera introduced Mapepe to his yellow baboon troop either later that day or early the next, as it was then that we found them all together.
The next time we brought them some food, they ate together a couple of metres apart, respecting Bagheera as the dominant male as always, but immediately afterwards, they walked swiftly directly back to the baboons and sat amongst them in full view of us. As if to say, this is our family now, thank you.
Bagheera would always leave a reasonable portion of his food behind and we’d like to think this was for his new family members. Mapepe as their newest member also respects this unspoken rule and so do we. We always bring just a little more than enough, so as not to get these two superb adult male ‘Vervet Baboons’ into trouble within the family troop.
Bagheera and Mapepe could not be in safer hands right now and it will now be up to them to decide when, or even if they wish to leave the baboons, in order to seek a wild vervet monkey troop of their own to lead. We would hope that they take their time in making this decision, allowing the baboons to show them all they need to know first.
We will continue tracking and assisting these two males over the same timescale as the main troop, for a full twelve months. With our main vervet monkey troop still being led by wild adult male Mulwendo, they too are in the best possible hands, in the absence of their two good friends Bagheera and Mapepe. Who can say when their paths might all cross again someday…