Baboons the losers in war with humans
Georgie was hit over the head and is missing part of his ear.
Penny’s right hand was mangled in a trap. Tammy’s bullet-riddled leg was amputated. Golden Arrow was shot dead, leaving her infant to starve to death.
The baboons of South Africa’s Cape Peninsula are caught in a war of attrition with their human neighbours, who are sick of having their kitchens ransacked by marauding apes with an uncanny knack for breaking into houses.
“People love them or hate them.
Very few people are ambivalent,” says Jenni Trethowan of the local Baboon Matters Organisation. “The hating community is the most vociferous.”
As she speaks, William, a hefty nine-year-old male, leaps over the wall and dances on the roof of a house, oblivious to the frantic barking of dogs. A whistle-blowing, stick-wielding baboon “monitor” finally chases William back into nearby woods to join the rest of the group, who are dozing peacefully or foraging among the trees.
“He is so naughty,” sighs Trethowan, who has named all the baboons in the area.
Trethowan manages nine monitors who try to keep baboons away from populated areas like Kommetjie near South Africa’s windswept southern tip to reduce the potential for conflict with humans.
She says the project has already helped reduce the number of baboons killed from 21 in 1999 to just eight last year. But a spate of attacks hit the headlines in May. Trethowan reels off a list of baboon victims, who have names ranging from Jane to Spaghetti.
One baboon was shot and killed in a wealthy Cape Town suburb, reportedly by an irate homeowner.
Another named Golden Arrow was found shot to death in a coastal village after Trethowan received threatening anonymous phone calls.
The baboon’s five-day-old baby starved despite the efforts of his traumatised brother, Quizzie, to care for him, Trethowan says.
The conflict began with the throngs of camera-toting tourists who crowd this scenic part of the country and have long ignored warning signs against slipping the baboons scraps of food, which carries hefty fines. The baboons grew used to the treats and became increasingly aggressive in their search for more.
Dave Gaynor, a primatologist, says baboons can gain as much nutrition from half a loaf of discarded bread as from foraging for four hours in the undergrowth.
“Once baboons know the value of human food, they will definitely go for human food,” he said. “It’s like having a permanently open candy store.”
Nobody knows how many baboons there are in South Africa, but most experts agree their numbers are dwindling as humans encroach on their living space.
There are between 250 and 270 chacma baboons in 20 to 30 troupes around Cape Town. There are no known incidents of the baboons attacking people, but even their defenders concede they can be intimidating.
National park rangers had to destroy one large male at Cape Point last year after it became too aggressive about grabbing food out of cars.
“If they descend on a house and pull off the gutters, it can be scary,” says Trethowan, who still has footprints on her stairwell from the last invasion. “They make a huge mess. They are destructive and tear things apart.”
The baboons are officially a protected species—although that doesn’t prevent locals from taking the law into their own hands.
Residents—many of whom are not warned by real estate agents that they are moving into a baboon hotspot—are advised to keep their trash in a secure place, close doors and windows, fit burglar bars or electric fencing, uproot fruit trees, and keep a high-pressure hose handy, said Gavin Bell of the South African National Parks authority.
Bell says most people in the region enjoy the baboons, but Diana Head is not one of them.
Head, who lives in the seaside village of Pringle Bay, removed all the gutters and had electrified fencing installed around her house after she found baboons trying to force open her upstairs windows.
She and her large Rhodesian Ridgeback dog are active members of a neighbourhood watch scheme designed to chase away baboons who come too close. Locals also carry whistles to sound the alert if the 30-strong troupe comes near the village.
Pringle Bay, a popular whale watching spot where many Europeans have bought vacation homes, was in a virtual state of siege late last year after baboons repeatedly raided the local store and even invaded a children’s nursery.
Things have calmed down since then, says Head. The dominant male who leads the raids—and specialised in removing sliding glass doors—has apparently been replaced by a more placid one, she says.
Villagers have fitted their garbage containers with concrete lids to stop the uninvited guests foraging in the trash. They also think there is a leopard in the region, which may be acting as a deterrent.
“There are still opportunistic break-ins if you leave a window open,” says Head. “They are so quick to spot anything, it’s incredible.” â€‘Sapa-AFP