When you think of a tropical island, tangerine sunsets and white sand beaches with electric blue water washing gently ashore as the palm fronds wave upon the trade winds, do you picture monkeys? For many of us, monkeys are synonymous with the entire tropical experience, whether we’ve experienced the primates first hand or not. If you’re coming from North America or Europe, yes monkeys are exotic. So are monkeys prevalent in the Caribbean? Well, unfortunately they are not. In fact there are only four islands where Caribbean monkeys roam wild and free – St Kitts, Nevis, Saint Martin, and Barbados – once home to notorious pirates, now home to a new breed of outlaw.
There were more primate species throughout the islands, once, but almost all have since gone extinct. According to my research there are only two species of monkey in the Caribbean: vervet monkeys on St Kitts and green monkeys on Nevis. The monkeys were brought to the islands on slave ships from Senegal and Gambia in the 17th and 18th centuries, either escaped or were set free, and learned to thrive in the wild (or in the urban areas harassing tourists). While they may appear adorable, Barbados considers them invasive alien species – and the country’s biggest pests. Mischievous little creatures indeed. The trouble with monkeys being considered agricultural pests is that in causing extensive damage to crops (often perceived as greater than it really is), monkey drives cull the populations which can have detrimental implications on the conservation of endangered species. They’ve also been known to attack tourists occasionally which really doesn’t help their cause.
Green monkeys are Old World monkeys (which means they lack prehensile tails), they’re brownish-grey in colour with yellow and white flecks around their black face. Their main diet consists of seeds, fruit and leaves but they are opportunistic scavengers and will basically crush anything they get their cute little mitts on. Even if it means committing stick-ups and robbing tourists and raiding crops. There are thousands of the little buggers on Nevis, living in tribes or troops consisting of 20-70 monkeys with one alpha as the chief. They sleep in trees deep in the jungle throughout the evening and during the day, raiding parties of primate commando units are dispatched out on a gathering mission for food. Unripened green mangoes are a favourite of the monkeys and they eat them like apples. They also eat leaves, seeds, nuts, flowers, eggs, insects and spiders.
There are 280 known species of monkey, which fall into three categories: non-human hominoids (apes), old world monkeys, and new world monkeys. Officially though, apes like gorillas and chimpanzees and orangutans aren’t monkeys. Monkeys range in size from the pygmy marmoset (4.6″ long) to the mandrill (3.3′ long). Some live in trees and others roam the savanna. Countless others yet are kidnapped and used in research facilities around the world, rocketed into space, and dressed in human clothes for the silver screen.
In the symbolic language of animal totems, monkeys represent intelligence, playfulness, and involvement. They’ve been historically depicted as mischievous characters in myth and lore as they are quite the pranksters – but the lesson is to recognize the timing of your jokes and make sure its well-intended as you share that light-hearted gift with the world. The grooming habit symbolizes compassion and community and is an expression of protection and caring, reminding us to encourage and support our friends and family. The monkey is also a bold and audacious creature whose energy can be called upon when you need help in standing up for yourself, and also as a warning to not slip into aggressive defence mechanisms. The tail represents balance and control, connection and mobility, assisting us in connecting with our own authenticity. So the next time a monkey comes your way, be aware of spirit messages from our animal messenger friends, and keep an eye on your lunch.