The Monkeys of Lake Nakuru

The drive from Lake Naivasha was long, hot and dry. Our fourteen member group filled the first parts of the journey with idle get-to-know you conversations, and lots of pointing to the occasional wildlife along the way. After the first few hours, however, travelers retreated into their books, journals, or stared wide-eyed into vast land that appeared raw and untamed.

The city and outskirts of Nakuru, Kenya were far from the lean-to squalors we saw in Nairobi. The spirits seemed lighter here. Everyone whistled and waved at our truck as it passed. Moving past these single level houses, our group of safari adventurers rolled down the small hill and pulled off the road in front of the entrance to Lake Nakuru.

Tall trees shading a large grassy area made an ideal lunch stop. Anxious to leave the truck after a long drive, we hopped off to stretch our legs. Trees abundant with monkeys immediately grabbed our attention. Nearly one-hundred and fifty of these primates leaped, chattered and screeched. Some playfully chased each other, some ate, and some were strangely attentive to our doings, watching cautiously from their perches.

A sweet looking innocent Black faced Vervet

Awestruck, we streamed forth, cameras and binoculars in hand. They gazed at us as intently as we peered at them. Our guidebook helped us identify them as black-faced vervets, the most common monkey on the African savanna. They had black faces, no larger than the palm of a hand. A gray coat of hair accentuated their black coloring. Their dexterity, grace, and care moving about the trees captivated all of us. Thigh-high they seemed small and by no means a threat, or so we thought.

As we unloaded the tables, chairs, and food, the idyllic paradise changed as the monkeys began their assault. Monkeys rained down from the trees and moved towards us. Two jumped into the open air truck. With quick and efficient precision they ransacked packs and day bags searching for anything edible. Our guide leaped in after them and shooed them away. Emerging with a sling shot, he handed it to the person next to me. “You’ve got to use it man, it’s the only way!”

Few of us believed that these small African cherubs were dangerous. However, they looked hungry and many were making their way in our direction. Taking sentry positions around the table as our sandwich preparation commenced, we braced for a siege. The monkeys edged forward more cautiously, flanking us on all sides, stopping only a short distance away. Our safety perimeter ebbed with the throw of a rock, and flowed back again when the monkeys were overwhelmed with hunger and curiosity.

One of the males made his way towards my position. Having designs on a loaf of bread not far from me, he crept forward, like a child inching towards a cookie jar. Sensing I was the weak link, unwilling to actually throw a rock at my distant cousin, he moved beyond the established perimeter. He was larger than the other juveniles, but I believed my size adequately deterred him. I stepped towards him fast and determined. I stopped short, stood fully upright, and puffed out my chest, making myself as big as possible. I was bigger. I could scare this tiny creature away. After all, I was at the top of the food chain and I ate small animals like him for snacks. He took a step back, but then took a step forward stood upright making himself as big as possible.

His reaction and willingness to accept my challenge, despite my obvious size advantage surprised me. A meter separated us. In that instant, my view from the top of the food chain did not seem so dominant or assured. We stood in an awkward face off sizing each other up. He was scrawny. Even in an upright position he reached slightly beyond my waist. Rather than look fierce and threatening and ready to trounce this lesser interloper, I stood there with a silly cock-eyed grin on my face.

I could not pull my focus away from his bright blue testicles. Transfixed, I tried to fathom a reason for this unexpected oddity. I pondered as to whether this monkey was the object of some bizarre monkey prank, had bad circulation, or was sex deprived. Conflicted between pity and curiosity at the dangling spectacle before me, I restrained my laughter.

I later read, in a Science News article, that their scrotum color indicates social status. A darker blue indicates higher levels of serotonin, a chemical suspected of influencing dominance. Clever scientists reached this conclusion by observing a group of males and identifying their rank then correlating their coloring. Then, the biologists enhanced the low ranking males by spray painting faded scrotums darker blue. Not surprisingly, with the new color, and improved self confidence, no doubt, the artificially enhanced climbed to the top of the social structure.

In the heat of the moment I knew none of this. Even if I did, it would not have helped, I was without spray paint or a dark blue scrotum. The male was accepting my challenge and taking the face-off more seriously than I. He sensed my lack of ferocity and blue-ball-ness. He opened his mouth, revealing some very impressive teeth, and let go a short loud shriek.

Startled from the bewitching effects of his genitalia, I took a step back. Knowing he had the upper hand, he took another step in my direction. Our guide looked up, grabbed a can of something, cocked his arm in catapult position, and ran full speed at the monkey. Frightened, the monkey stepped back and crouched, then retreated. The guide chased him right up a nearby tree.

Other monkeys, upset by the fracas, scattered and withdrew upwards. When walking back to the table, the guide nonchalantly mentioned: “It was about to attack you, you know. It would have given you a proper thrashing too.” The male monkey was furious. Jumping from branch to branch, he screeched and howled. Smaller monkeys scurried away before he could grab them. They made every effort to move as far from him as possible. His tantrum lasted for a while longer and then subsided as he climbed out of sight, sulking.

Lunch finished, we stashed our foodstuffs and spread out to take pictures. Sharleen and I walked together snapping pictures of tiny juveniles foraging. A mother nursing a baby captured our attention. The baby was no larger than my forearm. Both serene and vigilant, the mother held the baby to her chest whilst looking from left to right. So taken by the beauty of the moment, we failed to notice that we had drifted away from the group and were surrounded by a small group of monkeys.

I became acutely aware that Sharleen was furtively munching on a wafer and had a small bag of biscuits in hand. I stepped closer to him and drew my arm back threatening to throw my imaginary stone. One monkey flinched and cowered. The others saw through the charade and looked at me menacingly. They obviously conferred with a certain male monkey who confirmed I was a push over. With lightening quick speed, one monkey bounded towards Sharleen. Screaming, she threw her biscuits in the air. The monkey snatched the bag mid-air and landed by her feet. The thief then rocketed towards the nearest tree. The other monkeys lost interest in us immediately and chased after the prized package of Tim Tams.

Sharleen, more surprised than anything, was unhurt. Together we watched the chase as the lead monkey frantically stuffed sweat pieces of sugary joy into its mouth while evading pursuers. Holding on desperately to its treasure, it leapt from branch to branch and tree to tree. Looking back to our truck, the group signaled it was time to leave and piled into the back of the truck.

The truck moved slowly towards the entrance to the park. We passed a car that had recently pulled up to the park entrance. A smaller group left the car and went inside to pay their fees. One of the passengers left a window ajar. The last thing we saw was those marauding bandits squeezing through the front seat window and tearing through the bags in the back. Another lunchtime adventure was just beginning as the cycle of monkey attacks continued.

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