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Genuine orphan or rejection

Bijgewerkt op: 19 dec. 2019

When it comes to rehabilitating wildlife, it takes many different cases to notice something different, something peculiar; something that has not occurred before. Even after working with so many different species over many years, I still find myself in new situations with new challenges, and every case I get is a new puzzle that needs to be solver

One of, if not the most important factor of wildlife rehabilitation – or the rehabilitation of any animal – is individual animal welfare. Animal welfare is getting more and more attention across the globe as people become increasingly aware of the problems caused by population growth and the impact this has on wildlife.

Genuine orphans are defined as animals that have lost their parent(s) and as a result have become dependent on someone else’s care. In the wild, the care of someone else rarely exists, so ultimately orphans will die.

We often find these genuine orphans through human interference. Here in Malawi, many animals are taken from the wild and orphaned as a result of human-wildlife conflict. Crop-raiding is a very common example and tends to be a problem with vervets: animals get trapped, killed and their offspring is then taken away to be sold for some extra money or given to children to play with. Orphan season usually starts in September, but this season we had some very early arrivals. We were getting to the end of July when I received a message saying someone had found a baby vervet. I initially thought that this vervet could not be particularly young given the time of year, but my eyes widened when I received a picture of a tiny newborn.

Her eyes told me that she was desperate, having tried everything, and it was then that I realised that he was the problem, not her.

The story soon became clear when the lady who found the vervet called me. I could hear him crying in the background while she told me what happened and cupped him in her hands for warmth.

This tiny vervet fell out of a tree and landed in the grass, and while the baby became more and more at risk of being found by the dogs in the area, his troop moved further into the forest. The troop did not come back and the baby began to cry, and so his rescuers found and picked him up. Uncertain what to do, they luckily decided to call me for advice and I immediately asked whether it was possible to lock the dogs away, put the baby back in the grass and wait to see if the vervet troop would return for the crying infant.

The rescuers were concerned about how cold the baby already was and how cold he would become given the season, but I explained that it can take up to 5 years for an animal to be rehabilitated and released, so they quickly understood how important it was to try putting the baby back. The rescuers tried for 1.5 hours, but when the sun began to set and the troop was nowhere to be seen, we had to make the decision to retrieve him and bring him to the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre.

Kumbali directly after arrival in the evening
Kumbali directly after arrival in the evening

Kumbali arrived at LWC on 23rd July 2018 weighing 320g and with a temperature of 35.8. He officially marked the start of orphan season, but why so early and what really happened to him?

Tiny and cold as he was, the best way to keep him warm was by holding him against our bodies with a hot water bottle. My head was full of questions as I held him: how could he fall out of that tree and why did his troop not come back for him if he was so clearly in distress? I wondered if I would ever get the answers to these questions.

We were in the middle of the cold season in Malawi with temperatures dropping below 5 degrees at night. Kumbali needed a lot of sleep and couldn’t keep his temperature up alone so the entire team had to take it in turns to keep him warm day and night.

Kumbali & Fox
Kumbali & Fox

With so much to do elsewhere in the sanctuary, the days were full and the evenings sometimes even fuller. Deskwork often meant writing with both babies wrapped around my waist and we even had a bed set up in the clinic for the team to rest with them. There would often be 2 of the team there throughout the entire night to make the hourly feeds easier. Just like human babies they would sometimes sleep right through the night, only waking up for feeds and then snuggling back into your armpit to sleep. On other nights they would not rest at all. My clothes were covered in semi-cleaned poop patches, but honestly that just doesn’t cross your mind during such long nights.


Despite limited resources, with everyone pitching in and devoting so many hours of care to Fox and Kumbali, we slowly managed to get through the most tiring phase of their care. Both monkeys were sleeping better throughout the night and were able to stabilise their own temperatures, so naturally the round-the-clock care slowed down. It was time to start integrating them with their foster mothers: Kumbali was already matched with Target and Fox with Kezi.


When Kumbali was placed in a small room next to Target’s enclosure, she already knew what was coming for her: a new little foster baby, and so she demonstrated her usual interest. It was still relatively cold and although Kumbali was becoming more and more active, he would still get cold if he was on the concrete floor for too long, but that was nothing an improvised heating system of blankets and hot water bottles couldn’t fix.

When they were put together in the same room, Target commenced her usual subtle persuasion game: intense lipsmacking, sitting next to him and bending over while holding her arm behind her, getting close without looking at him, leaving him, coming back for him and so on… Kumbali was interested in the lipsmacking but unsure about everything else, especially when Target tried to lift him up by his tail to sniff and groom his bum with no success of actually holding him properly. If something spooked Target she would grab Kumbali and awkwardly carry him to “safety” (the highest point in the enclosure) and let him go. He would sit, wander around for a bit and then fall asleep on the shelf next to her.

Days passed and Kumbali was still not picking up on how to cling to Target despite her many attempts. Target has never let me down: she has always been the perfect foster mother to orphaned vervets with a tactical and persuasive approach, and I couldn’t work out who was doing what wrong.


I have known Target for so many years that I can read her facial expressions. She would anthropomorphically look at me as if to say, “what have you given me?” Her eyes told me that she was desperate, having tried everything, and it was then that I realised that he was the problem, not her.


I was getting anxious enough to start considering a new plan for Kumbali, which is a big deal because we would lose any headway we had already made with his progress. I observed them for a while longer, watching them tussle, which Target would always win by carrying Kumbali to another place in the enclosure but then he would set himself free again. Two weeks down the line, Kumbali was still falling asleep by himself on the shelf, which is not something I was ever comfortable with. This baby was so young and desperately needed warmth and comfort overnight.


Finally, one day when I was running late, I arrived at Target and Kumbali’s enclosure in the dark, searched around for them with my flashlight, and was so happy to see little Kumbali between Target’s legs, even if he was flat on his side with his head in a funny angle, they were sleeping together! I left them for their first successful night as mother and son.


It felt like everything would get easier from then, and it did in a sense because Kumbali slept with his foster mother every night, but in the strangest positions I have ever seen: behind Target, next to Target, literally upside down, sideways… every position except the normal, instinctive clinging position.


The same questions were still in my head: how could it be that he fell out of a tree? Was it meant to be? I started to piece things together and figured that maybe Kumbali was unable to cling onto his real mother and so she rejected him. Even Target was struggling to know what to do with the baby who couldn’t cling. It is a survival instinct and is usually mastered by newborns; if a baby doesn’t know how to do it, it will fall when the mother moves too quickly or suddenly. It is unknown how often rejection occurs in the wild, but we know it is very common with birds, so it can’t be unexpected with other species.


It is now over half a year since I integrated Kumbali and Target, and their separation was surprisingly stress-free. Target accepted me taking Kumbali away without a second thought: no calling, no attention towards Kumbali, nothing from either side that showed any signs that they might struggle. I always pay attention to the potential psychological trauma these separations might cause.


Kumbali’s next step was the integration with two other male vervets his age, and for Target she had a new, clingy foster baby within a couple of days of being separated from Kumbali.

So, was the fact that Kumbali never instinctively clung onto Target a factor in the lack of intensity in their bond? Is this why they were so easily separated? Did Target know that this baby was not the same as all the others she has fostered before? Would Target have rejected him in the wild without manipulation from us?

I feel like I can answer all these questions now. Kumbali, to me, was a rejected orphan. He was rejected for a reason: survival of the fittest and he was not the fittest. It’s great and very important that he is still with us, but how will his rehabilitation process unfold?

Fox has a similar story where I believe he is a rejected baby baboon.


#orphancare #wildliferescue #wildliferehabber #wildliferehabilitation #rejection

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