Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

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 for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

No more cash for coal says FirstRand says

The bank’s chief risk officer says banks can’t stand on the sidelines of the climate crisis debate

Zuma’s health not relevant, says his lawyer

With legal challenges to his medical parole looming, the former president’s lawyers opted to first argue for the removal of the prosecutor

More top stories

No more cash for coal says FirstRand says

The bank’s chief risk officer says banks can’t stand on the sidelines of the climate crisis debate

Zuma’s health not relevant, says his lawyer

With legal challenges to his medical parole looming, the former president’s lawyers opted to first argue for the removal of the prosecutor

Roads decimate West Africa’s chimpanzee population

The species face mounting pressure from roads and infrastructure development in Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Senegal and Sierra Leone

South Africa gets major investment to treat Covid-19, TB, cancer,...

President Cyril Ramaphosa welcomed the investment, noting that it ‘is a leapfrog to cutting edge technology’

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…