In the Cape of good old South Africa, people have a love-hate relationship with the baboons. Actually, let’s revise that. Some people love them; some hate them. You don’t seem to get much in between. I hear from one person that every baboon deserves to be shot (Deserves? Really?). Then I hear from another how we don’t belong in the baboons’ home territories, and because we’ve infringed upon their territory, we must accept them as part of the system we’ve injected ourselves into. I fall into neither category. I love the baboons, but that doesn’t mean I think they own the world, even if they were ‘here first’. And were they actually here first?
Here’s the thing. We are all one species of animal or another. None of us and all of us ‘belong’ in places. The bigger issue is how we can find a way to live harmoniously. Can we? I’m starting to think the answer to that is no. But it doesn’t mean I don’t harbour hope.
I spend a lot of time these days with the baboons in the Cape Peninsula. For anyone who doesn’t know what that means (and that’s probably a lot of people, since I have to explain to a lot of people that South Africa is actually a country and not a region of the African continent, so I imagine even fewer people know what the Cape Peninsula is), the Cape Peninsula is essentially the end of the world as far as the African continent goes. Though it is wrongly assumed to be where the two oceans, the Atlantic and the Indian, meet, it is simply a very large peninsula at the base of Africa, and also happens to be the location of the second largest city in South Africa. That would be Cape Town.
First off, for anyone who thinks wildlife roams the streets in South Africa, this is actually only really true in Cape Town, where the baboons do indeed have a sort of free reign (they are a protected species in this particular area). There are baboon monitors whose job it is to keep these baboon populations out of the urban areas as much as possible, but these animals are smart and speedy, so really, if there is a way to get through any barrier set up for them, they will find it. And they do, often. Which then finds them sitting on restaurant dustbins, munching on croissants and half-eaten pizzas. Or even better, they raid fruit trees that someone decided were a FANTASTIC idea to plant in their backyard, even though these same people KNOW they live in a baboon area. And then they get angry at the baboons. Stupid? That’s for you to decide. I have my own thoughts about the matter, which pretty much side on the “hmm, they are idiots and hypocrites” end of the judgmental thought spectrum. And yes, I have no problem admitting I’m judgmental about this stuff.
So the baboons in Cape Town (and in many parts of Africa) are Chacma baboons. While they are all the same species in South Africa, depending on where you ARE in the country, they look different. The Cape baboons are fluffy. REALLY fluffy. And they are not afraid of humans in the slightest. In fact, they think nothing of walking up to a vehicle, grabbing the door handle, opening said door handle, and getting in a car with a complete stranger (who usually at this point has evacuated out the other side of the car). I’ve seen a few knock people down to get at the food in their hands, or the backpack on their back. It isn’t supposed to be funny, but it is. I’ve had a baboon jump on me. Once on my back in an effort to grab a backpack off my back while I was hiking; once when I was holding a packet of crisps (also known as potato chips for those non-British English speakers). In fact, it was the same baboon. I had to literally fling him off me. And I might go down in history as the only person who was jumped by a baboon who didn’t give up the chips. I love my chips. Especially the Simba Creamy Cheddar Chips. I was not letting anyone, not even a baboon with four-inch canines, separate me from my snacky snacks.
Suffice it to say, these baboons have no fear of humans. There are several theories for this. One stems from the fact that baboons, like humans, are a very social species. These animals eat, sleep and breed in troops, or big groups. In fact, pretty much the only time you see a baboon on its own is if it has gone on a raid to tackle a local dustbin, or it is trying to disperse to try its luck with another group. Or, in rare occasions, if it’s been kicked out of the troop (or more specifically, is so low on the totem pole in the troop that it thinks it’s better off on its own).
Baboons live in a very strict social hierarchy, so a low-ranking male will eventually get tired of getting the crap beat out of him and often will just take off for greener pastures elsewhere so he can try his luck with the baboon ladies from another neck of the woods. Unfortunately, when these animals live in an urban environment, their paths to social networking get cut off. In fact, for a baboon in Cape Town, social networking doesn’t really exist outside its small (and getting smaller every year) territory. They have nowhere else to go anymore.
Because of their close proximity to humans (genetically as well as spatially on a map), it would appear they’ve essentially started to think of humans as taller, less hairy extensions of their own species. And since they steal from other baboons as part of their social life, they steal from humans, who’ve they’ve assimilated into their tribe, as well.
Another theory, and a very simple one as well, is that we just have more high-calorie food. Why bother puttering around a mountainside all day, scrounging for enough calories to make it through the day, and then having to do it all again the next day, and the next, and the next? Why not just steal a Snickers for the same amount of calories (and I’m guessing it might taste better)? If I were a baboon, I would go for the Snickers and spend all that new free time writing a novel. Because honestly, I wouldn’t put it past one of them doing that one day.
I can sit and watch the baboons for hours. In fact, I prefer watching baboons to watching people. They are, in my mind, infinitely more interesting and a hell of a lot less stress-inducing than most of the people I’ve met. I’ve had one hand me a weed once. And a few have come sit down next to me on multiple occasions, just checking me out, smacking their lips in an attempt to chat me up, and even drawing pictures in the sand for me. I could swear they show the same emotions and thought-processes we show, and I’m really not trying to anthropomorphize them. You can see them thinking, working things out. You watch them as they pick at their fingernails and clean out the dirt. You can see how, when in a rather clumsy moment they fall out of a tree, they look around in almost embarrassment to see if anyone saw their failed attempt at landing gracefully. They play with crickets. Seriously play with them. As I said, I can sit and watch them for hours. And I have.
I’m including a few photos of my little furry friends. For the next few posts, I’ll probably focus quite a bit on them, as I am lucky enough to know and spend time with the baboon monitors who manage them in the Cape Peninsula. Getting this close and personal with an animal so like us, and yet so different, is a privilege and a curse. I think it’s a good story for people to know, as it speaks volumes about the state of conservation, the state of people, and an overall lack of understanding of how important wildlife is to our own survival. I hope you enjoy these guys as much as I do!
Today’s song choice – Simply because of all the baboon action that goes on in a typical troop, I had to go with ‘SexyBack’. Sorry, Justin.
All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo