What is it about nonhuman primates that they are capable of transforming our perception?
“I was only truly happy when I was with the baboons. They were my emotional center and an important part of me remained with them even if I was physically distant”; wrote anthropologist Shirley Strum who had been studying olive baboons in Kenya for over forty years at the time.
Scientist George Schaller said of gorillas: “The eyes have a language of their own, being subtle and of emotion that in no other visible way affects the expression of the animal. I could see hesitation and uneasiness, curiosity, boldness and annoyance.”
And when South Africa’s first ethologist, Eugene Marais, moved to the Waterberg in 1905, settling close to a troop of about 300 baboons, he noted that the human psyche like the human body had evolved from the world of primates.
An indefinable, internal process seems to occur when long periods of time are spent with nonhuman primates.
Baboons in the Magaliesberg
My journey into the world of baboons began in 1997. Then, in 1998, while introducing my first orphaned baby baboon – Gismo – into the wild, I found myself accepted as surrogate mother by the whole troop, bringing me as close as possible to understanding how it feels to be a female, mother baboon.
Gismo’s mother had been shot eight months earlier. I’d carefully nurtured him since, preparing for the day he’d have a chance to be with his own kind, free and wild. Up until that moment, our lives had been entwined; an unconscious mother-child bond had formed. I knew that abandoning Gismo, and the subsequent guilt and fear, would stay with me as long as I lived. But his survival and future with his own kind meant the world to me.
For most of the rehabilitation process, and due to unforeseen circumstances, I ended up alone, reliant on my own judgment to direct the rehabilitation process. I’d been warned that I could place myself and Gismo in danger if I made one wrong move. Not knowing much about rehabilitation at the time, my only choice was to watch and listen to the baboons for guidance. Astonished to discover how directly the baboons communicated with me, I relaxed into relying on them for help.
For two weeks I stayed inside a large enclosure observing the interactions between Gismo and his new allies on the outside of the enclosure. I learned their language, making important life-or-death decisions based on their guidance.
The rehabilitation proved to be successful and for that I had to thank my new baboon friends. The remarkable manner in which they’d communicated with me had ensured Gismo a safe, secure future with his own kind.
From that moment on, I was determined to dedicate my life to breaking down the misconceptions humans have of these primates that share 94% of the same DNA as us.
Today science recognizes our connection to nonhuman primates; taxonomy places us in the same group as the Great Apes.
So close are we to nonhuman primates that they are studied to better understand the human condition in the fields of psychology, evolutionary psychology and biology.
After Gismo’s release, I went on to work with baboons in the Magaliesberg and Tsitskamma for close to two decades, spending more time with these primates than my own kind at times. Much to my surprise, in 2009, Firecracker Films, a UK based company, intrigued by my extraordinary life, contacted me. The documentary Baboon Woman was aired internationally but not in South Africa where baboons are severely persecuted.
Baboon presence has been etched into the African landscape for over two million years. What would happen to the environment if they were eradicated? Sometimes I’d wonder how life would feel if baboons were missing.
I found out after moving to the midlands in Kwazulu Natal in 2015.
Baboons in the midlands, Kwazulu Natal
Baboons appeared to be largely absent. The odd single dispersing male had been seen from time to time; male baboons leave their troops for the first time when sexually mature to move into a new troop for genetic mixing. This process can take about two months. Sadly these dispersing males are particularly vulnerable at this time, are wrongly assumed to be “rogue males” and are sometimes harmed due to this damaging misconception.
Valuable work conducted by local conservancies in the midlands has helped preserve this magnificent area that has been highly rated as one having irreplaceable biodiversity. Primates contribute to a healthy biodiversity for a number of reasons with seed dispersal being one of them. The baboon is no exception.
One morning early in February 2020, while watching the samangos deep in the forest, we heard the unmistakable “where are you” call of a juvenile baboon, then came across a baboon troop in the grasslands above the forest where the samangos foraged. Enraptured to see both primate species, I set up trail cameras to follow their movements.
Baboon Populations in KZN
Residents have report that troops have been absent for over twenty years. A paper published in 2012, suggested that baboon populations in Kwazulu Natal need protection and are estimated to be less that 10% of the expected population size.
Human-wildlife conflict continues to threaten this species; residents target individual baboons and damage troop structures; a baboon troop is made up of close, cohesive groups of family and friends.
As human development continues to encroach on the habitat of wildlife, replacing ancient foraging routes with farms, buildings, roads and electric pylons, wildlife is forced to compete. Baboons are shot at, electrocuted on pylons, trapped for bushmeat and muti (traditional medicine), injured or killed by dogs and run over in various parts of South Africa.
We have the choice to change this destructive path.
Electric fencing designed to keep baboons out
Baboon monitors are trained to keep baboons from wandering onto baboon properties. In the Cape Peninsula, baboon monitors were initially trained to form a line in front of baboon troops, and then run at the baboons, shouting, clapping and waving sticks. This method worked well to keep baboons out. When the baboons got close to properties where they were unwelcome, the monitors would chase them out again.
The human-baboon interface is particularly difficult due to the fact that 1.development has cut off baboons from moving out of the area hence obstructing single dispersing males from reaching other troops which is necessary for genetic mixing and 2. Tourists have repeatedly fed the baboons by hand, to the extent that baboons on the Cape Peninsula now generalize about humans. This situation is not comparable to other baboon areas in South Africa.
Monkeys and Apes feed primarily on plant foods with a small percentage of animal-sourced food making up about 2 percent of the diet. Most of this animal sourced food comes from insects (Harding 1981). The table below compares the diet of seven chacma baboon populations in Africa illustrating the small percentage of invertebrates in the diet. Although there are reports of baboons killing young antelope in various areas, this is not common behavior : baboons are adaptable opportunists.