Save a monkey to save a species

Watch an abandoned toque macaque infant being transported to a wildlife hospital

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Would you save a baby monkey if you discovered it injured, alone and abandoned in the street?

There is something beguiling about a baby monkey.

It is a trembling, nervous thing, yet intelligent and fiercely inquisitive, full of potential. If you found it, you might feel an instant pull to help it, to save its life.

But saving individual animals seems an outdated approach to conservation. Surely saving a population, a whole species, or the habitat in which it lives is a more efficient, and effective way to conserve wild animals?

Start Quote

You have to change the culture - it's people management not animal management”

End Quote Wolfgang Dittus Research associate, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

Not necessarily so, says Dr Wolfgang Dittus, who is known as the "monkey master".

Alongside his regular research, Dr Dittus and his colleagues in Sri Lanka spend their personal time and money saving macaques that have been injured by people.

By saving injured individuals, whether they be babies, orphans, or adults still part of a monkey "family", Dr Dittus's team are doing grass roots conservation, which they say is the only way to change the way people think about these animals, and help them to live alongside each other.

Dr Wolfgang Dittus, or Wolf as he likes to be known, first arrived in Sri Lanka in late 1968 to study communication in toque macaques for his PhD.

He is still there, working closely with the Institute of Fundamental Studies, Sri Lanka, studying monkeys around the Polonnaruwa archaeological site, and rehabilitating those that need his help.

Toque macaque Polonnaruwa temple ruins Sri Lanka (c) igz Dr Wolfgang Dittus believes saving one monkey at a time helps to change people's mindsets

"Our policy is this: if a monkey's been injured by another monkey in a fight and it's got a bad wound, let's say a gash from a canine [tooth], we don't even intervene," he says.

"We let nature take its course because we're the observer.

"But if it's an injury that's been inflicted by human intervention, for instance it got hit by a car or electrocuted, then we do our utmost to try to help it out."

Planet Earth Live

  • Planet Earth Live, which features toque macaques, lions and much more begins broadcasting on BBC One at 19:50 BST on Sunday 6 May. It starts on the NatGeo Wild channel in the US known as 24/7 Wild on 7 May

The latest arrival to his "wildlife hospital" has been documented by a BBC/National Geographic co-production crew filming for Planet Earth Live, which is following the lives of these monkeys throughout May.

This young macaque is probably two months old, and very tame.

"It was actually an abandoned orphan that had been raised by humans and I guess they got sick and tired of it and chucked it out," Dr Dittus explains.

It may never be known why the monkey was rejected, but "they make awful pets", he says.

"They're cute and all that but they want to sleep with you at night and then they poop and pee all over you."

Young toque macaque lying on temple ruin wall Young toque macaques grow quickly

Young monkeys also quickly grow into strong, wilful adults that are difficult to handle.

But that doesn't explain why so much time and effort should be spent saving these individual monkeys, however cute they may first appear.

"From a hard-assed conservation point of view, it doesn't do anything for preserving the gene pool and it doesn't do anything to conserve the species," Dr Dittus explains.

But saving this one individual, and others like it, can help educate people about toque macaques, about wildlife in general and how to co-exist alongside it, he says.

As with primate groups the world over, human pressures through habitat destruction and encroachment via population growth are the biggest threats to the survival of Sri Lanka's toque macaques, Dr Dittus believes.

Back to the wild

  • Dr Dittus hopes to return all their rehabilitated macaques back to the wild.
  • But macaques live in a hierachical society, meaning it is best to return them to their original family, otherwise they might be punished by monkeys they do not know.
  • For young orphan monkeys the rehabilitation process could take up to two years.
  • The process involves gradually integrating the babies with a local macaque troop that visits for just an hour or less a few times a week.
  • By spending time around these wild monkeys, the babies can learn social and communication skills.

Ever-expanding towns and cities and the rubbish they produce, as well as the conversion of forest to agricultural land growing crops bring the macaques into conflict with people.

Macaques are adaptable, and many have learnt to exploit these new resources, raiding rubbish tips, gardens and houses.

As a result, the government in Sri Lanka has recently classed toque macaques as pests, allowing people to "kill them at will", according to Dr Dittus.

Wildlife authorities in the area are also attempting to alleviate the problem by translocating what he describes as "streetwise thug monkeys" from towns and cities into remote areas.

This just passes on the problem, causing new conflicts in rural villages, where monkeys and people have historically lived in relative peace.

"If there are pest monkeys then deal with the root cause to prevent their development in the first place, instead of persecuting pest monkeys which are the symptom and result of human mismanagement.

"Having too many monkeys, that's a symptom but the cause is too much human food around - people either feeding them or leaving their garbage lying around that the monkeys have access to.

Monkey trivia

Family group of toque macaques (c) Andy Chastney
  • Toque macaques (Macaca sinica) are one of the smallest species of macaque and found only in Sri Lanka
  • They live in female led hierarchical societies

"You can't force people to conserve. The only way a human will think about conservation is if he loves something and in order to love something you have to understand it and in order to understand it you have to be taught it."

Dr Dittus and his field assistants try to educate at a grass roots level by getting them to care about the individual monkeys they interact with daily.

And that means getting people to care about the two-month old baby left orphaned and abandoned by its owners.

Usually, the team know individual monkeys and where they came from.

But this orphan is a mystery, and will have to be gently reintegrated into a new local troop.

"Once the group is comfortable with her then we'll release her. They'll beat her up a little bit at first but they won't kill her," he explains.

"At least it'll be a macaque living a macaque life in the wild, rather than a macaque living on a string in someone's home being abused."

And by saving this monkey, and others like her, he hopes to change people's mindsets.

"Convincing individual people about the conservation ethic, action and empathy is a cumulative message that others will pass on in their community. So it's worth doing."

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