School of Life Sciences

PhD graduate Dr Kerushka Pillay conducted research on vervet monkeys.

Comprehensive Monkey Research Provides Useful Guidelines

Dr Kerushka Pillay was awarded a PhD in Ecological Sciences for her research on aspects of the ecology and persistence of vervet monkeys in mosaic urban landscapes in KwaZulu-Natal. She was supervised by Professor Colleen Downs.

‘Increased contact between humans and troops of vervet monkeys using residential gardens has led to human-vervet conflict,’ said Downs. ‘Ms Pillay investigated vervet monkeys’ spatial ecology in a mosaic urban landscape including their home ranges and habitat use. The effects of anthropogenic activities and human-wildlife conflict on vervet monkeys were also documented. Her results contribute to human-vervet conflict resolution and support for further education and coexistence with wildlife in mosaic urban landscapes.’

Having completed all her tertiary qualifications at UKZN Pillay had built a strong relationship with the School of Life Sciences over the years. ‘It felt fitting to complete my PhD in an institution that fosters and guides young scientists like myself,’ she said.

Pillay studied the spatial ecology of vervet monkeys and troops living in a conservancy on a landfill site (Buffelsdraai) and compared this to an urban residential area (Bluff). Her study documented the home range and habitat use of vervet monkeys using GPS tracking collars. ‘The vervet monkeys in this study had relatively small home ranges and utilised both forest and urban areas,’ said Pillay.

Another key aspect of the study focused on the human-wildlife conflict of vervet monkeys in eThekwini Municipality by documenting trends in admission records (2011-2018) at an urban wildlife rehabilitation centre.

‘Significantly, admissions increased annually and were reported highest in Spring,’ said Pillay. The main causes were being hit by motor vehicles, dog attacks and being orphaned.

‘Most of the vervet monkeys arrived alive at the centre; however, 71% were declared dead by the end of the admission process,’ she said. ‘Admission data also account for the first observations of pregnancy cases exhibiting dystocia (difficulties during birth/labour) in pregnant female vervet monkeys (n = 13).

‘The study’s results highlight the plight of urban vervet monkeys and support education, management and conservation of this primate species in the urban mosaic landscapes of South Africa. Despite urban infrastructure and human activities, vervet monkeys persist.’

Pillay explained her interest in monkey research: ‘Being born and brought up in KwaZulu-Natal, there is no place you can go and not see vervet monkeys. Love them or hate them, they have caused quite a stir amongst the public with many taking up positions for or against the species.

‘I wanted to provide scientific evidence to support protection of the species and highlight the blatant disregard for wildlife living in a shared environment along the urban-forest mosaic.

‘Vervet monkeys depict resilience in an ever-changing landscape. They can thrive under anthropogenic activities and in fragmented habitats with or without humans.

‘I am in awe of them as they resemble human behaviour so closely, like when they groom or play fight. We are lucky we still get to see wildlife on our doorstep without having to leave the city. Most of us take this for granted,’ she said.

Pillay said her study was significant as the results revealed that vervet monkeys are active and move regardless of their urban and anthropogenic surroundings.

‘They mainly move for food and I believe if feeding were ultimately banned we could reduce a lot of conflict in urban areas between people and monkeys,’ she said. ‘Feeding monkeys allows them to become pests. We need to avoid them becoming a nuisance or Damage Causing Animals (DCA).

‘Collisions with vehicles and pet attacks will also be reduced if food provisioning is banned as monkeys will not have to move down from the trees to forage around pets and human food in garbage. We as humans, need to manage our waste better.’

Pillay said that monkey-proof bins and screens on windows to deter monkeys from entering properties for food are warranted to avoid conflict.

‘The spate of poisonings arising from vervet monkeys eating food laced with poison is another reason we should stop feeding them,’ said Pillay. ‘Monkeys cannot distinguish between a person genuinely feeding them or to get rid of them, sadly forever.’

Pillay’s study showed that the major human-wildlife conflict is vervet monkeys being hit by motor vehicles. ‘The public needs to reduce their speed, especially near wildlife crossing areas which we have identified as hot spots for collisions.

‘I could go on and on, but we wish to educate as many people as possible to learn to co-exist with vervet monkeys, which will eventually help us alleviate the “vervet monkey problem”,’ said Pillay.

She thanked her ‘work mother and supervisor Professor Colleen Downs’ as well as her parents, Links and Pavanee Pillay, and paid special tribute to her father who passed away suddenly in 2010 whilst running a qualifying race for the Comrades Marathon. ‘With the support of my mother and his guiding spirit, I managed to complete my studies.’

Pillay is currently working for the Endangered Wildlife Trust and hopes to continue applying her knowledge as an ecologist to conserve habitats and assist with saving wildlife in South Africa.

Words: Sally Frost

Photographs: Sandile Ndlovu and Supplied