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Conservation: Primate Sanctuary

Making monkey business pay

On the eve of Monkeyland’s 15th anniversary, Marion Whitehead asked co-founders Tony Blignaut and Lara Mostert how this popular Garden Route attraction, said to be the largest multi-species primate sanctuary in the world, manages to be a commercial success without compromising the animals’ wellbeing.
Photo: Monkeyland

Monkeyland-TongueYou’re obviously animal lovers, but why monkeys?
Tony was working as a tour guide on overland safaris in Africa between Johannesburg and Nairobi when he noticed how many monkeys fell victim to the bush meat trade. The idea of starting a primate sanctuary gained momentum after we met and became aware of how many of these creatures – sold as pets, circus performers and to zoos – were maltreated, abused or unwanted. This touched us, maybe because we share a huge percentage of our DNA with our primate cousins.

How did it all start?
In 1995, we bought a 23-hectare patch of forest at the Crags, outside Plettenberg Bay, drummed up some capital from a group of like-minded conservationists who became our shareholders and enclosed 12 hectares of forest with a monkey-proof fence. It took a while to rehabilitate the first inhabitants, but in April 1998, we opened for business and the tour buses started pulling in.

Monkeyland-Ringtailed-LemursWhat makes you different from many other sanctuaries?
Most sanctuaries are cash-strapped operations run by passionate conservationists on a shoestring budget, dependent on donations. Many resort to the “pet and play” strategy, where tourists pay a fee and are allowed to interact with wild animals habituated to humans, or trained to perform tricks. The animals are often exploited at what are little more than petting zoos.

Monkeyland-Capuchin-MonkeyOur monkeys live a natural life, with no bars or fences to spoil photographs. Visitors can wander among them with a guide and watch them feeding and playing, but there is no touching, cuddling or feeding allowed. After going through a physical and emotional rehabilitation process when they arrive here, the animals no longer associate humans with food and ignore them.

As a responsible ecotourism project, with Fair Trade in Tourism accreditation, we always put the animals’ wellbeing first.

How have you managed to make ethics pay?
At Monkeyland, we have a strict policy of respect for the animals. The primates are contented and safe, the staff has fun doing jobs they love and visitors catch the happy vibe. They come for entertainment and leave with a greater awareness and understanding of conservation issues.

Monkeyland-Tony-LaraWhy are nearly all your monkeys exotic?
Most of our 450-plus residents were rescued from the local pet trade, circuses and laboratories, or they were zoo ‘surplus’ animals from around the world. We don’t ask questions; we just take in animals in need and give them a safe home. One of our aims is to be able to supply breeding stock to correct ‘empty forest’ syndrome and repopulate areas where local primate populations have been wiped out, should that become feasible in the future.

This must rate as the world’s top monkey retirement centre. What about other species?
In 2005, we started Birds of Eden next door to Monkeyland and it’s run on the same principles. A 1.2-kilometre boardwalk takes visitors through the canopy of the largest single dome multi-species aviary in the world, past feeding stations where they can watch birds up close. It’s a magical world where birds that have lived all their lives in cages can learn to be birds again. Our next project is Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary for predators, which will relocate from Mossel Bay to the Plettenberg Bay district and opens in March.

Tel: 044 534-8906
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This article first appeared in AA Traveller.

Copyright: Marion Whitehead