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Baboon "Gangs" Run Wild in Suburban South Africa

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg, South Africa
for National Geographic News
October 4, 2006
 
Conflicts between baboons and humans in the suburbs of prosperous Cape
Town have gotten so bad that monitoring teams have been deployed to keep
the animals away (South Africa map).

The large monkeys invade people's homes in the coastal Table Mountain region, sometimes confronting people who try to scare the baboons off.

Some residents have retaliated by shooting and poisoning baboons and by running them over on local roads.

The situation has also caused rifts within communities. In a suburb ironically named Welcome Glen, rival societies have formed, with some trying to protect the baboons and others wanting them removed or killed.

"We sometimes get into standoffs [with neighbors]," said Rose Ashley, a member of the Welcome Glen Environment Group, which is pro-baboon.

"We want the baboons to stay, and we see it as our task to protect them from people who want to harm them."

(Related: "Ten Thousand Foxes Roam London" [May 15, 2006].)

Breaking and Entering

Joan Laing is co-chair of the rival Welcome Glen Baboon-Free Neighbourhood Action Group. She says the animals are a menace.

"They break windows to get into houses," Laing said. "They even know how to open doors. And once inside, they make a mess. They empty the fridge, ruin furniture, and defecate all over."

And they're not afraid of people, she says.

"I have had them in my house several times, even while I was there. They simply brushed past me. I had to get out of the way," Laing said. "Even my husband got threatened by a baboon."

She insists that monitoring teams trying to keep the baboons at bay are not effective.

"These animals are quick. They can cross walls and roofs at speed. For two or three people to try to keep them away is impossible," she said.

"They move in a troop of about 30, and they are so wide apart that it is impossible to stop them slipping into built-up areas."

Laing says the baboons have been corrupted by years of close contact with humans.

"They must be kept out of our neighborhood. How is for the authorities to decide. All I can say, the monitoring system isn't working."

Primate Patrol

The monitoring force consists of nine recruits from an indigent community in the area.

Called the Baboon Monitoring Project, the team is funded by the City of Cape Town, Table Mountain National Park, the central government's poverty relief program, and Baboon Matters, an organization set up four years ago by Jenni Trethowan, a local resident, to relieve the plight of the baboons.

Trethowan believes the project is working, but she says it needs more funding and more staff to make it more effective.

The team's task is to keep baboons away from the developed areas and roads. Trethowan says the monitors join up with the animals early in the morning and stay with them until nightfall, when the baboons retreat to their sleeping places.

When the monitors see baboons moving toward houses or the streets, the people drive the animals away by making noises and waving arms and sticks.

"It is generally not too difficult to get them to retreat," Trethowan said.

Trethowan has been involved with baboons for about 18 years and often joins the teams on patrol.

"The team members adopt postures that demonstrate their dominance, and the baboons respect this. They generally back off," she said.

But the monkeys are also cunning, she says.

"Some get adept at slipping around the few people herding them. Sometimes they rise early and get to built-up areas before the team members arrive," she said.

"This happens particularly on dustbin days, when people put their litter out early in the street for collection. It has even happened that they sneak down to villages at dusk after the team members had left."

The baboons' "innovations," Trethowan says, put a strain on the available manpower.

"We need more people to help with the patrols, but for that we need more money."

Wally Petersen is a member of the Kommetjie Environmental Awareness Group, named after a picturesque seaside village. The group is dedicated to working with the authorities to find a solution.

"To us, extermination is not an option," Peterson said. "We believe more efficient management is [an option], and for that, we need resources."

Relocation is not an option either, conservation experts say. The local baboons have become too habituated to living among people, and there is nowhere else people will accept them.

"So we are concentrating our efforts on improved management," Petersen said.

There Goes the Neighborhood

The source of the problem is human encroachment into the baboons' historic habitat.

There are about 370 baboons in the area, and they are essentially trapped by coastal cliffs to the south and nearly complete development on the plains to the north.

Some 250 baboons live in the region's Table Mountain National Park, but it is hardly a secure home.

At about 148,260 acres (60,000 hectares), the park is a narrow, jagged strip of mountainous terrain, which is surrounded and in places fragmented by urban development.

The park is free to visit and gets about 4.2-million visitors a year. Growing attendance is worsening the problem of contact between people and baboons in the park.

Painted Primate

The baboons outside the park, numbering about 150, are the primary concern of Trethowan of Baboon Matters. The animals are divided roughly into four troops, roaming near seaside villages of recent vintage.

Trethowan says she's not sure what the ultimate solution is.

In spite of efforts to keep baboons and humans apart, the monkeys keep getting killed—most of them shot—at an average of about 15 to 18 animals a year.

There was an instance some years ago when a baboon was caught and painted white, in the belief that this would scare them all off.

"But all it led to was the heartbreaking sight of the rest surrounding it and grooming it until all the paint was off," she said.

Trethowan believes there will be a positive outcome and that the answer somehow lies in education. Baboons, she says, are primarily defenders, not attackers.

True, a baboon bit a tourist when she tried to grab back an ice cream that the baboon had grabbed from the woman. But generally the monkeys will not attack unless cornered or threatened, Trethowan says.

"What we need is a sustained awareness campaign," she said. "Baboon-challenged villages can do simple things, like not leaving [out] easily available food, like for dogs and birds, or keeping fruit trees. It has to become a collective effort.

"The monitoring teams were never intended to be the lasting solution. But unfortunately people have come to see them as such and are less inclined to do these sensible things," Trethowan said.

"On the other hand the authorities have been taking a more proactive attitude by helping with funding, monitoring, management, and awareness campaigns," she added.

As part of the attempt to improve public attitudes and to raise money for baboon management, Trethowan has set up another organization, called Baboon Stories.

Mostly under Trethowan's personal guidance, Baboon Stories takes people out on walks to see the baboons at close range in their natural surroundings. The idea is for people to get a better appreciation of the animals.

But to Laing, of the baboon-free-neighborhood group, this contributes to the problem.

"All it does is make baboons even more used to people and less scared of them. And this is what these people will not understand."

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