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Answer to monkey issue

JEAN BAULU, Director, Barbados Primate Research Centre and Wildlife Reserve

Answer to monkey issue

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At this time of year, the monkeys in Barbados become more visible and seem to cause more destruction to crops. Farmers complain, and news of their discontent abounds in the media.

Why is this phenomenon repeated every year?

We have to go back 40 years when serious attempts at stopping the increase in the monkey population began earnestly. I created the Barbados Primate Research Centre and Wildlife Reserve (BPRC&WR), with help from the Caribbean Development Bank and CARDI, and first did a survey of ten farmers per parish, but only with farmers who had monkey problems.

I spent hours with each farmer collecting data on vegetables and fruits grown, the amount of yearly damage to each, when the monkeys were seen daily, at what time of year, etc. How many monkeys there were, in how many groups . . . .

With the help of a wildlife specialist at the University of the West Indies (UWI), we extrapolated the number of monkeys the 110 farmers gave us and the size of their land with the size of the monkeys’ habitat on the island. We were able to estimate the Barbados monkey population in 1980 at about 14 000.

Fifteen years later, in 1995, we conducted a similar survey with different farmers who also had monkey problems, in all 11 parishes and found the population of monkeys was still around 14 000. The centre had humanely caught over 10 000 monkeys by then, 1 000 per year on average, and that seemed to stop the increase in population.

Fifteen years later, in 2010, a follow-up survey estimated the monkey population to be no more than 14 000. By then, the centre had captured humanely an additional 20 000 monkeys and the number of captured each year seemed to control the population; that is, stop the increase, which was always the centre’s goal.

As of this year, 2018, over 35 000 monkeys have been captured humanely and used for the safety testing of polio vaccines or in the development of autoimmune diagnostic kits.

It should be noted that the Monkey Crop Damage Control Programme initiated by the centre over four decades ago, has not cost anything to the taxpayer. As long as there is a need for monkeys or their organs for important medical purposes, the centre and its monkey humane control programme will remain financially self-sufficient.

These studies and other information have all been made available to Government agencies (Ministries of Agriculture and Environment) and published in scientific journals.

One has to remember that Barbados, up to the late 1990s, had over 75 plantations spread around the island. Slowly but surely, with the decrease in the planting and harvesting of sugar, the plantations, responsible for growing huge amounts of vegetables and fruits along with sugar cane, started to disappear. And the monkeys lost their preferred spots to raid crops.

What happened next was that monkey groups (or families) devised another strategy to feed on human crops, especially during the so-called “dry season” where foods in the gullies are scarce. They began to forage from one small farmer’s plot to another small farmer’s crop, even raiding fruit trees in urban areas. This cycle of foraging by the monkeys, sometimes far from their sleeping sites, has been repeating itself for well over 15 to 20 years, ever since the plantations disappeared.

More monkeys and babies are observed during this period (this is the time of year when mothers have their young) and arguably there is more damage to crops suffered by farmers.

One thing is certain and that is if the centre had not captured 35 000 monkeys, the population would have certainly over-run the island and the state of agriculture would have been in shambles.

There are solutions to minimise the damage monkeys do to crops. Some suggestions have been to grow foods that monkeys prefer closer to gullies, planting more fruit trees in gullies, growing foods that monkeys less prefer around their cash crops and/or raise animals, rather than planting foodstuff, especially in the northern parishes, where there are more gullies and therefore more monkeys.

The shooting of monkeys is certainly an effective, short-term solution but has not proven successful even in controlling the monkey population and, anyway, hunters feel there is not enough monetary incentives.

Dogs seem to be the best deterrent for scaring monkeys and protecting crops, and, of course, decreasing the existing population is the most drastic solution to consider. The latter solution would certainly raise the ire of conservationists and sometimes it is better to live with the consequences rather than create another problem.

– JEAN BAULU, Director, Barbados Primate Research Centre and Wildlife Reserve