'Monkey Valley' is naturally inspiring

CHARLES ROBERTS Sunday morning at 7 o'clock. Even with the shutters closed across my bedroom windows the light penetrates in brilliant slivers. The message is clear: Get up and start the day - and fill it with something interesting.


Sunday morning at 7 o'clock. Even with the shutters closed across my bedroom windows the light penetrates in brilliant slivers. The message is clear: Get up and start the day - and fill it with something interesting.

Initial impressions to newcomers are that finding “something interesting” is a far from easy command in this quiet swathe of rural France. Not so. Look closely, and the place is a hive of activity.

For months now I've been told repeatedly by many people that I must visit a place called La Vallée des Singes. “Valley of the Monkeys? Come on now. I've got more pressing things to do than looking at monkeys.”

“You might think so”, urged one of my informants. “But it's totally fascinating. You won't regret it.”

Fine, challenge accepted. But by the time I'd completed my toilette, breakfasted and eased myself into the driving seat of my car, threatening cloud had effectively stifled the sunshine.

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Still, having got this far, I wasn't going to be dissuaded by a spot of rain. The weather had one last try. The 45 minute drive to Monkey Valley, near the village of Romagne, was marked by a solid cover of grumpy clouds, but not a spot of rain. Not until I turned into the gateway, that is. Then the clouds opened for a steady quarter of an hour.

What also opened up was an immensely satisfying new world. First the scenario, which is a cross between Robin Hood's Sherwood and Peter Pan's NeverNeverLand, created from timbers, rope ladders, hammocks and hideaways. There are small lakes, with a couple of islands large enough to provide independent territories for gorillas and chimpanzees.

But that is only the start of it all for a first time visitor. Following winding pathways, we pass through the homes and habitats of no less than 350 primates covering 30 species of monkeys.

This astonishing catalogue spans the range from the dominant gorilla of the group (sometimes weighing in at 220kg), down to the tiny marmosets and Tamarins, who weigh only between 150 and 600g.

Another intriguing monkey to be found here is the Titi. Once a year the female gives birth to a single offspring. The male does most of the work of carrying the new arrival, handing it back to its mother only for feeding.

Titi monkeys are very rare in captivity. Much to the pride of the Vallée des Singes team, 50 per cent of all recent titi births were here. At night they sleep together with their tails entwined, a habit unique to their species.

The land here is rich in wildflowers. It is a touch which brings visible beauty and colour, as well as a valuable area for botanical study.

There is a subtle inter-relation between the animals and the humans passing by. Yet so careful - brilliantly so - has the planning been, that we are scarcely aware of divisions, let alone of cages. To all intents the “residents” are at liberty, and at leisure, so large are the spaces given to them.

Ruling over his harem on his own private island is the valley's craggy large black gorilla. Leisure for him is to do nothing except sit and watch his world roll by, and nonchalantly to catch the food thrown to him by one of the staff who watch over the daily needs of all the animals.

These “keepers” are themselves far from ordinary. All of them have degrees, all have studied their subjects in depth.

The Valley is a unique place in France; and if not unique, at least very rare in the world. How it started is ground for surprise too. The inspiration came from the concept of Apenheul Primate Park in the Netherlands. Its original purpose was both to help tourism and encourage developing employment, in a region which badly needed these sources of income.

What the project did bring was a “home grown”, modern zoological institution, for which nature conservation was and is the principal goal.

This was achieved through co-operating with other parties in captive breeding programmes. Education became an important element; followed closely by the support of conservation projects in the wild. This calls for 20 permanent staff, plus another 40 for seasonal work. There are also a lot of students during the summer months, who are welcomed into the 15 hectare park.

The foundation work was paid for by the various levels of local government which operate in France. By any measure it is open-minded and open handed - an investment of 6m euros.

Will the day ever come, I ponder, when local authorities in Norfolk will respond to a similar call - and have the spirit and strength of purpose to meet it?