South African Chacma Baboons In Danger of Extinction

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By Lorna Thomas

A Chacma baboon - photo by Lorna Thomas South Africa baboons
A Chacma baboon – photo by Lorna Thomas

Unless trends change, the remaining 250 Chacma baboons of the Cape South Peninsula face extinction within 10 years.

Baboons lived in Cape Town’s surrounding hills and plains long before their human neighbors took up residence. The conflict escalated as urban development encroached on baboon habitat bringing them into ever closer contact with man.

Briefly, problems arise when the primates seek human food, in the process causing destruction to property.

Some believe the conflict was unintentionally sparked by tourists slipping baboons scraps of food while watching them along the roadside. Baboons began associating tasty treats with humans and they now regularly raid houses and refuse bins.

The calorie fix obtained from ‘fast food’ easily and quickly supplies energy normally gained from a whole day’s foraging. Half a loaf of bread replaces 4 hours of foraging in the hills.

Baboons Living in Harmony

Living in harmony with baboons means recognizing they are simply following instinct. If food is accessible and they are hungry, they will take it. Fruit trees and unprotected vegetable patches also attract baboons – they smell fruit 3 kms away.

Some Cape residents enjoy having wildlife 'up close and personal.' - photo by Lorna Thomas
Some Cape residents enjoy having wildlife ‘up close and personal.’ – photo by Lorna Thomas

While many residents appreciate wildlife literally on their doorstep or fence and enjoy seeing baboons playfully sliding down roofs or interacting with each other, attitudes of fear and annoyance exist amongst those frustrated into taking inappropriate action, either preemptively or as revenge.

Though baboons are protected by law, they are regularly shot, stoned, poisoned, and harassed by people and by dogs. Smaller baboons and nursing mothers with young clinging to their bodies are especially vulnerable. Several have amputated limbs as a result of injuries.

No Security

Baboons entering a house with little or insufficient security on windows and doors may undeniably cause extensive mess and damage – especially when several baboons enter the house. Baboon ‘burglars’ are only after one thing – food. They also litter when tipping over unlocked rubbish bins, rummaging through them for ‘junk food’.

Rather than blaming the animals, it is up to humans to take responsibility for securing doors and windows and locking their bins. If people consistently ensure their food is not available, baboons are more likely to simply pass through the area rather than lingering and causing damage.

Don’t Feed Them!

Baboons can get into mischief when they raid trash cans for food. Photo by Lorna Thomas
Baboons can get into mischief when they raid trash cans for food. Photo by Lorna Thomas

The same principle applies to tourists – car windows and doors must be shut when viewing baboons and food should not be visible. If a baboon sees you carrying food, he may try and grab it. Better to let him have it than risk confrontation and possible injury.

Although they do not deliberately attack people, baboons are wild animals and their instinct is strong for both obtaining and holding onto food once in their possession. Possession of food is 100% of the law in baboon terms!

Baboons Matter

Jenni Trethowan founder of Baboon Matters, an organization seeking to educate people about the baboons, has been a driving force in helping the baboons over the last years. She was nominated as a finalist for her work in the 2005 Cape Times/V & A Waterfront ‘Woman of Worth’ Awards.

Apart from lectures and public awareness campaigns, being involved with the animals when they are hurt or injured, her initiatives include the ‘Walking with Baboons’ Tour, a 2-3 hour walk into baboon territory where tourists and residents can observe baboons in their natural habitat and gain an appreciation and respect for these intelligent and entertaining animals. Jenni names the baboons – two troop leaders are George and Eric – and they have their own distinct personalities.

Jenni Trethowan is working to protect baboons like her friend Quizzie. Photo by Jenni Trethowan
Jenni Trethowan is working to protect baboons like her friend Quizzie. Photo by Jenni Trethowan

These primates have a clearly defined social structure within the troop. Each has a place in baboon society – from the Alpha or dominant male, with his powerful build and long canines which quickly command respect, to the tiny, black-furred baby clinging upside down to his mother’s tummy. (Later it rides on her back, jockey style.)

Jenni also organizes baboon management teams such as the Baboon Monitors, comprising 9 men who, each morning, determine where the baboons have slept and herd them away from residential areas back to the hills, thus minimizing the chance of baboon raids on properties.

By means of whistles, shouts, baboon sounds, brandishing sticks, the monitors keep the baboons out the villages 25 out of 30 days.

Monitors’ salaries are partially subsidized by residents. If insufficient contributions are made, monitors cannot be hired. Both residents and animals suffer.

Baby Baboons ride on their mothers' backs. Photo by Lorna Thomas
Baby Baboons ride on their mothers’ backs. Photo by Lorna Thomas

Golden Arrow

In 2005, Golden Arrow, at the time Jenni’s favorite female, was found shot to death days after giving birth. The baboon’s 5-day-old baby starved to death although his traumatized brother, Quizzie, desperately tried to care for him, carrying him for two days before he died.

Jenni said “Golden Arrow was a particularly special little animal. She led the Da Gama troop for some time in the absence of a mature male baboon. The monitors all loved her for her bravery – she was known to defend the troop from dogs.”

A number of signs around the scenic Peninsula warn tourists not to feed baboons. The signs are there for a reason. It may be appealing to watch the animals eat food thrown to them, but long after tourists go home, residents – and baboons – pay the price for baboons being fed by humans. They pay with life and limb.

Rather than being considered a nuisance and persecuted, the baboons with their intelligence, exuberance, mobility, structured social life with an emphasis on protecting their young should be enjoyed by the community and by tourists.

Jenni Trethowan has said ‘ Baboons are an integral part of the history and heritage of the Cape; they are important to the eco-system, an attraction to the tourists, and above all else, we want to see them on the mountains in years to come.’