Our little friend Jes, the vervet monkey, visits our classroom in Rwanda each day. She doesn’t say much, but she definitely has a story. Akagera park officials learned that a young monkey had been taken as a pet, a violation of the law, so it was taken from the people and brought to the park. Over time it was reintroduced to wild vervets and it lived with them for many months. One day it returned to park headquarters on its own with a badly damaged hand, which led to amputation of the limb almost to the elbow. So Jes has become the unofficial headquarters mascot. She’s free to return to the wild anytime, but because of her injury and the stunted growth that is probably the result of malnutrition when young, it is unlikely that she will thrive or be accepted in a completely wild monkey troop. When she gets comfortable with you, she will sit in your lap and let you pet and preen her. She will return the favor and check you carefully for fleas and dirt. She’s a real charmer, but sadly, she is no longer equipped to be a wild monkey.
Most of us know that making pets of wild animals is not a good idea and it is illegal in most places. Finding a solution for an injured animal like Jes may be easy in a city with a zoo or nature center, but it’s a real challenge at a park. We enjoy Jes, until she steals our markers and chews on them or digs through our lunch looking for bananas. She’s like a two-year old child, demanding continual attention.
In Akagera National Park, they ask people on safari to never feed baboons, vervets, birds or other wildlife. It leads to begging, unhealthy animals and normal behavior disappears. Clearly, we should not be habituating wild animals to beg at picnic areas or come close to tourists.
On the other hand, habituation of some gorillas and chimpanzees in Rwanda’s other national parks has a value in protecting them. Chimps are difficult to habituate because they move through the treetops and they seem naturally wary of humans. Jane Goodall perfected this kind of habituation several decades ago during her research studies. The Jane Goodall Insititute has helped train trackers at Nyungwe National Park, where chimps may be visited in Rwanda. Local people haven’t always been fans of the chimps, as the clever apes sometimes raid village gardens on the outskirts of the park, but tourism dollars provide community benefits through revenue sharing, tracking jobs and ranger jobs, encouraging local people to protect them and their habitat.
Meanwhile, in Volcanoes National Park, mountain gorilla populations have recovered from a low of approximately 220 animals in the late 1980s to the current estimate of around 900. Poaching and theft of baby gorillas for sale to zoos created a crisis for the mountain gorillas that has been turned around by tourism. Amy Vedder and Bill Weber tell the story of how mountain gorillas were habituated to tourists in their book, In the Kingdom of Gorillas. The daily visit of gorilla families in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park brings 80 tourists daily into the presence of gorillas. Each person pays $750 for the one-hour visit, supporting year-round protection of the gorillas by rangers, guides, veterinarians and porters. Tourists are observers only, allowed to take nothing into the forest with which to feed the gorillas, no direct contact due to the potential to spread disease, and instructed to keep voices low and cameras without flash to avoid annoying these magnificent animals. Unfortunately, most guides do not mention how vital the permit fees are to protecting gorillas. I haven’t heard any of them deliver the message that tourists are investing in the future of mountain gorillas and the communities around them.
To habituate or not is a difficult and complex issue. In Rwanda, under careful supervision, I think it has its place in protecting man’s closest relatives, the great apes. If experiencing elephants, tracking chimpanzees and coming face to face with mountain gorillas is not on your bucket list already, you might want to consider a trip to all three Rwanda’s national parks. The land of a thousand hills may hold the opportunity for some of the best experiences with wildlife you’ll ever have.
– Tim Merriman