Lessons in how to talk

to our cousins

Scientist George Schaller wrote of gorillas: “The eyes have a language of their own – being subtle and of emotion that in no other visible way affects the expressions of the animal. I could see hesitation and uneasiness, curiosity and boldness and annoyance.” He believed it was impossible to observe other species, and especially other primates, without interpreting their behaviour in human terms. After all, we humans are primates too.

With the support of the Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education (Care), run by Rita Miljo of Phalaborwa, I recently fostered Gismo – an orphaned baby baboon – for almost six months. I was delighted when Damian van Gas, a former assistant at Care, gave me the opportunity to rehabilitate Gismo back into the wild.

He would join a troop of baboons – comprised of 17 individuals – which had been successfully released by Miljo and Van Gas more than three years earlier at the Mosdene nature reserve, near Naboomspruit. Rehabilitation, if successful, would be the perfect answer to Gismo’s uncertain future – previously there had been suggestions that he be put in a cage at the centre.

While it is necessary for a rehabilitator to interact with the baboons to some extent, keeping them away from humans and their associations – dwellings, vehicles, crops – is an important factor of rehabilitation. The Mosdene troop had been released far from human habitation, they were protected by the privacy of the reserve and had not proved to be “problematic”. Most of them had experienced the best and worst aspects of human behaviour, and were well aware of the dangers they could pose.

The analysis of DNA molecules, which carry hereditary traits, has shown that humans, chimpanzees and bonobos share more than 99% of the same make-up. But until the 1960s science followed the lead of Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, who was initially responsible for placing humans and other primates in separate categories. He later came to regret this decision and admitted having created a separate slot for humans for the sake of the church, in spite of the fact that he did not know of any generic characteristics separating humans and apes.

I found that human language, print and other media, as well as the dysfunctional primate representatives held in captivity in zoos and research laboratories proved inadequate when it came to painting a picture of baboon life. First-hand interaction with the Mosdene troop and the inevitable consequences of the rehabilitation process – developing relationships with individuals and observing troop dynamics – gave me a totally different insight.

Shirley C Strum, an American anthropologist who spent more than a decade observing an olive baboon troop, found she had to discard many of her academic notions because they conflicted with the lessons the baboons themselves taught.

After spending time with the baboons, I realised that the fear of being anthropomorphic – projecting human attributes on to animals who don’t share those attributes – severely stunts our perception of primate life. Ironically, using human words as opposed to baboon language when describing baboon life is, in itself, peculiarly anthropomorphic. Our closeness to other primates confuses the issue further.

Because the study of the emotions and psychology of animals can be filled with projections, these important areas were initially ignored by scientists (for the sake of convenience) in favour of more accessible factual information. As a result, science came to deny animals many of their most relevant attributes.

Ethologist Konrad Lorenz complained that “one of the most customary and hackneyed objections to which ethologists have to listen is that humans are unique”. We humans are limited in truly grasping the psychological and emotional lives of other species, due to our conceit and self- imposed status of privilege. If it is anthropomorphic to attribute human characteristics to animals, it is chauvinistic not to attribute human traits to animals who have them.

Baboon language is expressed through a series of facial expressions, sounds and gestures punctuated with emotion – a system ranging in intensity that is uncannily similar to our own non-verbal communication. Because of this shared understanding, it soon became effortless to interact with individuals in the troop. I learnt to adopt social strategies in much the same way that the baboons did to achieve their goals within the complex hierarchal structure of the group. My motivation was a stressless release for Gismo.

Currently classified as “problem animals”, baboons are not protected. Once branded as “vermin”, they have been indiscriminately shot, poisoned, trapped for use in laboratories and culled. If, as many people seem to believe, conservation must first serve the betterment of humans, we have to deny our dependent, symbiotic relationship with animals – a separatist attitude that will surely destroy ourselves along with all else. How can it not?

The rehabilitation of baboons can teach us much about the rehabilitation of more endangered primates. Yet how stable is the population of baboons? The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) lists baboons under Appendix II, which means they are regarded as a species that could become endangered if trade is not controlled. But in spite of the strict requirements imposed by Cites, no monitoring of baboon populations and their habitat is done in South Africa.

As a result of ignorance, baboons are progressively facing eradication. The general apathy about this state of affairs was illustrated when Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Pallo Jordan gave the go-ahead last year for the exportation of more than 80 baboons to French pharmaceutical company Sanofi.

Rehabilitation is a necessary procedure to counteract the destructive impact of human interference in the natural world. Having had little interaction with his own kind, Gismo at first resisted becoming a full member of the Mosdene troop, although many of the individuals persisted in changing this. As the days passed, he gained confidence and formed stronger, sustainable bonds, and eventually – after nine days of slow interaction – assumed the full mantle of baboon life.

I parted with him confident that his social and nutritional needs were finally being met. He was consistently engaged in mutual grooming, bonding and play activities. He’d been adopted into a sub-group and now had a mother, Dotty, and three of her consort partners – the paternalistic Grobler, Rat and Alfred E – for fathers. Added to these “family” figures were a number of juvenile playmates, as well as a few adult allies. He’d quickly picked up the communicative skills required for smooth interaction.

Today, Gismo is a fully accepted member, surviving alongside his own kind, free in the wild.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

2019: The ones who left us

From Uyinene Mrwetyana, Oliver Mtukudzi to Xolani Gwala, Mail & Guardian remembers those who have passed on

More battles ahead for domestic worker unions

Florence Sosiba, speaks to the Mail & Guardian about how important domestic workers are and exclusion in the COIDA

“Life has been good to me, considering where I come from” – Xolani Gwala

Just over a year ago, veteran radio presenter Xolani Gwala’s cancer was in remission. He spoke to the Mail & Guardian once he was back on air.

Kanya Cekeshe’s lawyer appeals decision not to grant him bail to the high court

Kanya Cekeshe’s legal team filed an urgent appeal at the Johannesburg high court on Tuesday against Monday’s judgment by magistrate Theunis Carstens.

Leader’s principal aim to build IFP

Gravitas: Velenkosini Hlabisa brings his experience to his new post as leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party.

Police Minister Bheke Cele addresses Jeppestown

Police minister Bheki Cele visited Jeppestown on Tuesday to speak to business owners and community leaders.

Subscribers only

FNB dragged into bribery claims

Allegations of bribery against the bank’s chief executive, Jacques Celliers, thrown up in a separate court case

Dozens of birds and bats perish in extreme heat in...

In a single day, temperatures in northern KwaZulu-Natal climbed to a lethal 45°C, causing a mass die-off of birds and bats

More top stories

North West premier goes off the rails

Supra Mahumapelo ally Job Mokgoro’s defiance of party orders exposes further rifts in the ANC

Construction sites are a ‘death trap’

Four children died at Pretoria sites in just two weeks, but companies deny they’re to blame

Why the Big Fish escape the justice net

The small fish get caught. Jails are used to control the poor and disorderly and deflect attention from the crimes of the rich and powerful.

Koko claims bias before Zondo commission

In a lawyer’s letter, the former Eskom chief executive says the commission is not being fair to him

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…