Member of the release troop "Nkonde" feeding on wild fruits moments after release.
Releasing wildlife back into the wild is the ultimate goal of all our wildlife rescue efforts. The duration of rehabilitation required is usually species dependant, although the level of trauma or injury an animal has suffered may also affect the time this process takes. Whilst the elephants in our care can take up to 15 years to fully release, the primates we support usually range between 1-3 years of support before they are ready to be released.
When the primates are rescued, they are placed into quarantine, so we can ensure no transmissible diseases are introduced to our establishing troop, but then within a few months the newcomer joins a species-specific troop (either vervet monkeys or yellow baboons), where over time they develop relationships whilst living in a very large, natural enclosure. Together the primates will forage, climb and play, socialise, groom and even support and learn from one another during predator awareness training. Once we see that there is strong troop cohesion, we know they are ready to take the next step back into the wild.
We prefer to release the primates around October/November each year, when we are seeing wild foods starting to become plentiful, as this will maximise the resource availability for them in their first season of true wild-food foraging and independence. Choosing the right release site is also crucial for successful reintegration of primates into the wild.
For this year’s release, the team carefully selected a site along the Lwasanda River on the northern side of South Kafue National Park. The decision was based on stringent criteria, that prioritises the safety and well-being of the troop such as the type of vegetation, distance from residential areas, and the availability of food and water. A temporary holding enclosure was constructed at this site in readiness, as its important to ensure that the primates are climatised to the area and have a ‘safe space’. The new sights, smells and sounds are significant, and the troop need to further bond and support one another upon arrival, and not disperse in fear the moment the doors are opened.
Temporal holding enclosure constructed at the release site.
In the early hours of 4th November, our rescue team embarked on a 34-kilometer journey from the Primate Transit Home (PTH) to the new release site taking with them 27 vervet monkeys. Each monkey had to be caught individually, which was achieved by placing favourite food sources inside transport cages in their night enclosure. The monkeys were carefully loaded and transported by car across to the release site and secured in the holding enclosure. The holding enclosure is not as spacious as the enclosure the troop had been used to at the PTH and so there is a risk of increased aggression once inside this smaller space, so it’s a careful balance of keeping them inside long enough to ensure they are comfortable in the new surrounds and supports troop bonding, but not too long that it might cause inter-troop aggression. The long-term and experienced Primate Handlers, led by Project Manager Cosmas Mumba (who started ZPP back in 2002) kept a vigilant watch on the troop's behaviours, staying at the enclosure for all daylight hours and providing food and water as required.
Primate handlers carefully loading transit cages with monkeys, in preparation for their journey to the release site.
After 10 days inside the enclosure, it was then with much excitement and anticipation that the doors to the holding enclosure were opened, and the 27 vervet monkeys were given back their birth-right to live in the wild. As the primates joyfully leaped from tree to tree, revelling in their newfound freedom, their excitement gave way to internal struggles for dominance of the troop. After 2 hours of testing strength and fighting, the aptly named adult Vervet Monkey, "Big Boy", emerged as the overall dominant male, and established himself as the troop leader. This natural hierarchy is crucial for the troop's survival in the wild, as they need a leader to support them with decision making and protection of the troop in situations of unrest or attacks from wild monkeys or predators.
Big Boy keeps his eyes on the troop moments after emerging as overall dominant male and troop leader.
Cosmas reported, “We are so happy that we have released the primates today, which is a true representation of our mission; that implores us to rescue, rehabilitate and release these primates back to the wild where they belong and will live in peace away from human interference.”
The release troop bonding with each other, while familiarizing themselves to their new home in Kafue National Park.
The first week after releasing the primates back in the wild is a critical period which demands around-the-clock monitoring by the team. This vigilance is essential in supporting the troop to build confidence in the wild, as the Primate Handlers are recognised by the troop as a form of security. The temporary enclosure remains open should they feel the need to utilise this base in their early release days. Also since this is their first season back in the wild, due to their unfamiliarity with this new environment, we will continue providing supplementary feeding for the next 12 weeks. This nutritional support aims to bridge the gap until the troop is ready to source their own food; fostering a smooth transition to self-sufficiency.
ZPP team out on a post-monitoring exercise at the primate release site in Kafue National Park.
“For the next 12 months, the team will be based at the release site to monitor the troop, help it to smoothly integrate with and adapt to life in the wild. This helps the troop learn their territory and comfortably settle in this unfamiliar environment,” said Cosmas.
Five of the primates, each with high-ranking positions in the troop, are wearing radio tracking collars, which facilitates the close monitoring, should they start to venture. These collars have been treated with weak links, which will ensure they drop off after about 12-18 months, by which time their integration into the wild should be complete. We aim to follow the troop daily for 12 months post-release to ensure release success, and over the past five years we have recorded a 90% release success rate at one-year post release. The 2022 release troop are still in visual range and thriving at 100% survival.
Mutinta (Left), moments after being fitted with her tracking collar, now thriving in the wild.
As this exciting journey continues for the 2023 vervet troop, we remains committed to monitoring and supporting them, ensuring successful integration back into their natural habitat. This heartening tale serves as an inspiration for future conservation efforts, emphasizing the importance of the individual within the bigger picture of conservation. Every creature counts, and we strive to promote compassion, empathy and animal welfare as we continue to rescue, rehabilitate, and release wild animals back into the wild where they belong.
This primate release was made possible thanks to the generous support from our Donors and Primary Partners, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, Born Free Foundation, Olsen Animal Trust, Humane Society International-Austria, Pro Wildlife, International Primate Protection League, Foundation Brigitte Bardot, and African Parks.